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.
Marc Copland - "Alone"
Pianist Marc Copland is bursting out all over these days - producing high quality music at a dizzying rate. His New York Trio recordings have received considerable critical acclaim (Vol. 2 was our #4 album in 2008 - see here), as has his recent duet with Gary Peacock ("Insight" here). With the results Copland is getting it is no wonder he continues to record. He is clearly at the top of his game so might as well strike while the iron is hot. Along with his own originals like "Night Whispers" - which he revisits here, Copland revels in exploring new directions in others' tunes, with penetrating and pleasing discoveries unearthed. This time around he tackles Mal Waldron's "Star Eyes" (taking the beloved tune into a stellar atmospheric meditation), Wayne Shorter's "Fall," and the popular ballad "I Should Care," while also finding inspiration in a trio of early Joni Mitchell folk songs: "I Don't Know Where I Stand," "Rainy Night House" and "Michael From Mountains." Other pianists, such as Herbie Hancock and Lisa Hilton have both recently used the iconic songwriter's work as a stepping off point and it is clear that her creative and sophisticated music (based on her own methods of tuning the guitar) is territory ripe for further development. Copland uses the themes as a basis for stretching out and adding in new and exciting harmonies that make for enchanting listening. With shades of Bill Evans, Chopin and Monk massaged into form that embraces shadows and light, Alone is an outstanding solo piano venture by one of the finest pianists and improvisors alive today.
Rob Mazurek Quartet - "Sound Is"
Rob Mazurek has been opening ears to new directions in jazz with his Chicago Underground and Exploding Star ensembles. On Sound Is, he fronts a quintet featuring Tortoise drummer John Herndon and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, along with bassists Matthew Lux (electric) and Josh Abrams (acoustic bass and piano). Mazurek performs on synth, cornet and piano and paints a shimmering sonic soundscape that defies categorization. The music is avant garde, but despite the use of electronics seems quite organic and mesmerizing. Herndon's percussive outbursts add a rock-like feel at times, as on the opener "As if an Angel Fell from the Sky." Mazurek's cornet comes in on "The Earthquake Tree," displaying the chops he earned playing in hard bop combos. This number also features Adasiewicz - one of Chicago's favorites - to good effect. The plethora of percussion instruments used (also the electronic device known as the tenori-on appears) in such numbers as "Dragon Kites" - which itself seems influenced by Mazurek mentor Bill Dixon's sound creations. These more "open" pieces generally are followed by more composed works, such as the wonderful "The Star Splitter" - where a grooving bass line, compelling piano and somewhat ominous looped percussion provide a base for Mazurek's Dixon-inspired riffing. Other highlights include "Cinnamon Tree," the beautiful Far-Eastern "The Dream Rocker," "The Field" and "Beauty Wolf" - where the lines between rock, jazz improv, world and electronic music blur and become meaningless in the pursuit of an engaging new sound. Traditionalists may not care for it, but the fact is that the visionary Mazurek is trailblazing a path in an attempt to take jazz into the future.
Shawn Maxwell Quartet - "Maxwell's House"
One of the young jazz artists making their mark on the Chicago scene, alto saxophonist Shawn Maxwell continues on vigorously despite a music industry that is crumbling before our eyes and is understandably indifferent to the plight of the lone artist attempting to write and record new music focused as they are on their own survival. Thankfully, Nick Eipers and Chicago Sessions took the opportunity to record Maxwell on his third and strongest outing yet, Maxwell's House. The rhythm section of double-bassist Kevin Martinez and drummer Brandon Dickert provide a solid foundation for Maxwell and pianist Matt Nelson to solo over Maxwell's gnarly and highly-creative changes. Maxwell growth as a player is breathtaking - his Kenny Garrett-inspired tone and long lines a fresh change from the usual alto player's approach to burn at all times and leave no space. Maxwell shreds and well when it is appropriate. Nelson, of course, is becoming one of Chicago's most in-demand pianists and it is clear why here again as he proves the perfect foil for Maxwell. The compositions are grounded in the traditional, yet spiked with plenty of surprising shifts and interesting elements and evidence of Maxwell's confidence and maturity. For example, the opening title-track wouldn't seem out of place in an old Hollywood musical, but for the modern harmonization and sudden changes, while "Shuffled" bookends a straight-ahead center with some deliciously twisted lines. The truly beautiful ballad "Five" is indeed in 5/4 time. You will have trouble sitting still as "Jathor" suddenly changes from a mellow shuffle into an intense rocking section driven by Dickert's aggressive beat and highlighted by hot solos by Nelson and Maxwell. A lovely waltz for daughter "Ava," a sprightly Matt Nelson/Matt Nischan original "If Only," the leisurely-paced "Welcome," the funky waltz of "Sector 7-G," the high-stepping "Different Colors of Cool" and a new version of his mind-bending "Dangerous Curve" follow, and showcase the wide range of Maxwell's vision. By following his own way, Maxwell has created another album of importance based on his originality and sense of purpose. As such, it is impossible to resist the urge to claim that Maxwell's House is good to the last note.
Sam Sadigursky - "Words Project III - Minatures"
(New Amsterdam Records)
It's my favorite time of the year - when Sam Sadigursky releases his annual (for 3 years anyway) Words Project jazz/poetry recording. Volume III ("Minatures") takes on the words of David Ignatow, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson and a surfeit of lesser known poets from around the globe. Assisting Sadigursky (on a multitude of keyboards and reeds) is Michael Leonhart on voice, horns, keys and various other goodies including kalimba. The duo are joined by singers Monika Heidemann, Sunny Kim and several other singers and musicians on instruments from acoustic guitar, baritone sax and violin to cello, table and english horn. Thus the music at times incorporates international elements - as appropriate since the poems include those from Russia, Colombia, Portugal. The music is often quiet and minimalist (Sadigursky cites Satie as an influence), allowing the words to take center stage, but at times bristles with energy. Carlos Williams' hilarious "Danse Russe" is given a germane modern treatment complete with Sadigursky's effected vocals, while Maxim Gorky's Pravda propaganda piece "O Muzyke Tolstykh" is a scary bit of work. Maureen McLane's sad love poem, "ode" is a true highlight speaking of the fragility of love as presented by Leonhart's quiet voice, Sadigursky's piano and Michael Beers' english horn. "Forbidden Fruit" could almost be new jazz standard, while the haunting "Tears" is based on the writings of a child imprisoned in a Nazi prison camp. Sadigursky again brings the world of words and music together with this fine collection of "minatures."
Gaea Schell - "After the Rain"
Canadian-born, LA-based Gaea Schell returns with "After the Rain" featuring the pianist and singer in trio setting with drummer James Alsanders, bassists Scott Steed and Roger Shew (with Chris Colangelo on one track) enhanced by stellar saxophonist Chuck Manning. As is her wont, Schell again tackles standards such as "Alone Together," "September in the Rain" and "In Love in Vain" - often giving them her original method that mixes Bill Evans colors with Oscar Peterson rhythms. Her vocal takes are charming and she takes a unique approach to phrasing well-known songs such as "It Could Happen to You" and "How Insensitive." Her version of "Skylark" is especially appealing. These are joined by several original compositions by Schell, which highlight her songwriting ability, including the wonderful title track, the beautiful "Truth's Surrender," the excellent bossa "In a Moonlight," hard-swinging "Immergence" (sic) and achingly-nuanced "Requited." In fact, as good as her covers are (including the album ending Gigi Grice/Jon Hendricks' "Social Call"), it is Schell fabulous originals that should be her claim to fame.
Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens - "Two Cities"
The two cities being Chicago and Oakland, CA - where reedman and leader of the Fast Citizens on this recording Aram Shelton - teaches at Mill College. This time around, Shelton provides most of the compositions (last time was tenor sax/clarinetist Keefe Jackson see here ) for the group - which includes Jackson, cornetist Josh Berman (whose Old Idea was one of the better releases last year see here), cellist Fred Longberg-Holm, bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The growth of these players is apparent as they create music that combines traditional jazz elements with Ornette Coleman-influenced modern directions. The mostly Chicago-based citizens take things up a notch here with heightened energy, maturing compositional skills and confidence and an increased awareness for listening to each other. The music veers from demented dixieland to big band swing to Sun Ra-harmonized ballads to bebop-in-a-blender to New Orleans funeral music to free improvisation - sometimes within the same song. A strong and interesting release with some excellent playing by these talented musicians that will appeal to fans of the Ornette lineage of jazz.
Seamus Blake - "Bellweather"
Saxophonist Blake's last outing was the spectacular Live in Italy which nearly broke into our top 10 recordings in 2009 (finishing 11th - see here) by catching lightning in a bottle in capturing Blake's quartet in action. On Bellweather bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Bill Stewart replace Danton Boller and Rodney Green from "Live," while adding guitarist Lage Lund. Pianist David Kikoski - whose sparkling interplay with Blake highlighted the live set continues to provide exemplary work here as this quartet bookends five Blake originals with John Scofield's (with whom Blake has been associated) "Dance Me Home" and another jazzed-ip version of Debussy's "G Minor String Quartet (Opus 10)" - which was also covered on the live outing. With such first rate players and material, you can be assured of a high quality album and indeed, the group comes charging hard right out of the gate driven by the energetic rhythm section on the straight-ahead version of the Scofield tune featuring fine solos by Blake and Lund. "A Beleza Que Vem" gives tenor master Blake an opportunity to shine on soprano sax on this Brazilian-tinged number, while Kikoski again dazzles with his keyboard mastery and Lund applies his unaffected guitar work. Meanwhile, "Subterfuge" with its aggressive shifts and outstanding ensemble playing is simply a great tune showcasing Blake's tenor and compositional skills at their best. The ballad "The Song That Lives Inside," the 5/4 title track and powerful "Minor Celebrity" all display a writer coming into his own, and the songs are played well by this talented cast on this strong and self-assured release.
Andreas Kapsalis Goran Ivanovic - "Guitar Duo
Fans of acoustic guitar will thrill to this high octane duo composed of steel-string tap virtuoso Andreas Kapsalis and Croatia-born nylon string classical guitarist extraordinaire Goran Ivanovic (Eastern Blok). The combination of these two players gives the illusion that there are more than just two players at work (yes, the percussion sounds are also from the guitars), and their interplay, impressive technique and finger calisthenics will take your breath away. Melodically focused, they are at their most melodic on "Samba in 10," "Shadow Thief" and "Migration of the Solstice," while exhibiting their blazing skills on such compositions as "Vertigo" and "Kalajdzisko Oro." The duo, who play locally in Chicago create more of a cinematic classical output than one would suspect and this may surprise someone thinking they are going to get the usual fingerpicking, flamenco and Django mimicry. Highly capable players performing intricate songs, this duo appears at Katerina's and will be performing two shows at the Jazz Showcase on January 27th.
Harry Allen - "New York State of Mind"
Tenor saxophonist Harry Allen takes the listener back to 1920s era New York City with this enjoyable set of old school classics. He opens up with a burning version of "Puttin' on the Ritz" that features Allen and trombonist John Allred soloing over a fine rhythm section of pianist Rossano Spotiello, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Chuck Riggs. Melody was the king in those nearly forgotten days of yore, but it lives still in the hands of Allen, whose lovely Ben Webster-ish, straight-ahead rendering of "Harlem Nocture" is followed by the joyful "Broadway Melody." With similarities to that time in history in our current day, one wonders if this form of musical escapism will make a comeback (or perhaps it already exists in television's American Idol). But in any case, the music is truly enjoyable and Spotiello is a find on piano - expressing Duke and Fats in his keyboard work. The NYC theme continues with Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York," Cole Porter's little known "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor," "Sidewalks of New York," "Rose of Washington Square," "Chinatown My Chinatown," and "Manhattan Serenade" which makes one wonder that with so many great songs about New York why this idea hasn't been done before. Allen reaches into the 1970s to come up with Kandor and Ebb's anthemic "New York, New York" and Billy Joel's title track, but they are played as if it were Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins or Zoot Sims were sitting in on a smoky stage late at night in the Golden Age of the Big Apple.
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