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.
Jeff Lorber Fusion - "Now is the Time"
Back in my hometown in the Pacific Northwest (Missoula, Montana), my friends and I would get whipped up into a frenzy anytime a band from Portland made their appearance at a local dive called the Top Hat Lounge. That band was the Jeff Lorber Fusion and their energetic blend of funk and progressive jazz used to drive us wild. In the middle of the high-living, circus atmosphere of that crazy college town, the young band leader and keyboardist always had a serious look in his eyes that spoke of deep dedication and drive - something that took Jeff Lorber to the very top of the music business. This success primarily occurred after five albums between 1977 and 1981 with "the Fusion," when he began mixing more R&B into his songs, smoothing out the sound and helping pioneer the smooth jazz sound. Lorber has recorded at least five albums a decade of his own material, while working with and producing a Who's-Who list of vocalists and musicians from the Smooth Jazz world: Michael Franks, Dave Koz, Kenny G, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Wayman Tisdale, David Benoit, Gerald Albright and many more. Now to the delight of fans of his early work, as well as his later output, Lorber has reformed the Jeff Lorber Fusion with perhaps its best lineup yet, and is revisiting the songs and sounds from his fusion years, while utilizing the knowledge and production techniques he has learned over the years, producing his best album yet in "Now is the Time" - and one is suspect may just win Lorber a well-deserved Grammy. By combining the delicious production values with more advanced changes and harmonies that are usually found in the genre, Lorber may reinvent music for a second time.
A perfect example is the opening number - "Rain Dance" - from 1979's "Water Sign" - which has been sampled by numerous hip-hop artists, including Lil Kim. Lorber's keyboards are first rate, Irene B provides lovely vocals, while Randy Brecker's flugelhorn is brilliant. And the band on this radio-friendly tune, I should mention, includes Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., and the Blood Sweat and Tears Horns. This lineup (minus the BST horns) is pretty consistent throughout , but is changed up for the satisfying funk of "Dr. Moy" which follows and features Lorber on organ, Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden and saxophone star Eric Marienthal (who appears on the entire rest of the album). "Pixel" is an uptempo urban groover that will get your feet moving, while "Sugar Free" is another "hit" with Irene B back on vocals. Things really move toward fusion with the inclusion of a funked up version of Weather Report's "Mysterious Traveler," while old favorite "Curtains" is given a beautiful ballad treatment. Of course, no visit to the Fusion's heyday would be complete without the inclusion of the terrific "Black Ice" - one of my all-time favorites, and this version - complete with excellent Haslip bass solo - is outstanding. The wonderful "Las Rosas" is as light and airy and welcome as a cool breeze, while "Chinese Medicinal Herbs" is an uptempo gem from Lorber's debut that showcases his exemplary acoustic piano work, along with some fine guitar playing by Larry Koonse, and explosive drumming by Dave Weckl on this 7/4 burner. "Water Sign" is "oh-so-funky" and features Irene B on what should be another hit. The album ends on strong fashion with the high-stepping "Sumatra." A very well done album - great to hear this direction from Lorber.
Alper Yilmaz - "Over the Clouds"
Turkish-born bassist first came to our attention with his wonderful 2007 debut recording Clashes - which caught our ears with its blend of world music, pop, funk and jazz. On Over the Clouds, Alpez ups the jazz quotient, while still displaying the originality of style that is his trademark. "Yet" opens up in avant garde territory before morphing seamlessly into a compelling progressive fusion piece, complete with brilliant David Binney alto saxophone solo over Alpez' rippling bass, guitarist Nir Felder's chordal waves and Bodek Janke's percolating drumming. Janke switches off with drummer Volkan Oktem - who opens up the driving second track - "Flughafen" with a delicious intro into another strong fusion composition. Felder is given more room to operate here and comes up with a tasty solo. The haunting 11:05-long "Misir with Gramdma" builds slowly with sound loops and great ensemble work by Binney, Janke and Felder before Alpez takes his first solo. Alpez has incredible technique, but also a strong sensitivity to go along with it, and he adds a spicy Middle-Eastern flavor to his shredding. The free jazz "Her Waves" offers up great solos from the band, with Binney's swirling alto one of the highlights. "Straight Up" starts with a moody bass solo before slamming into a progressive rock fusion with slashing guitar, energetic drumming by Oktem and Binney on fire again. The bass line here almost reminds one of a progressive mutation of the Queen song, "Another One Bites the Dust." On "Cadgas," Yilmaz layers his basses over electronics to weave a pleasing fabric of sound, that gives way to the rocking "Perplexity" - which features perhaps Felder's best guitar solo. Binney contrasts Felder's fire with a cool, low-down response, and then Alpez comes in with sheer torrents of bass notes. The ending title track adds in some lovely wordless vocals by Aslihan Demirtas along with waves of sound effects to end this highly satisfying release by taking the listener floating away into the stratosphere. Fans of great bass playing, David Binney, or modern fusion (not old school) will definitely want to pick up a copy and get familiar with the talented Yilmaz.
Peppe Merolla - "Stick With Me"
One-time Italian child and teen singing sensation/classical trumpeter/drummer and actor Peppe "Little Joe" Merolla - now a highly talented jazz drummer, fronts a hard-driving sextet on this rewarding album. Starting off with exotic drumming and Steve Turre on seashells on the Afro-Cuban "Naples," the band kicks into exciting hard bop, featuring the impressive group of soloists in Turre on trombone, Jim Rotondi on trumpet, Mike LeDonne on keyboards, as well as saxophonist John Farnsworth on this Merolla-penned number. Farnsworth also brought several wonderful original charts to the table, including exciting burners "Ferris Wheel," "Cry for Understanding," the 9:38-long "Mozzin,'" and the playful waltzing "Princess of the Mountain" and lilting "Junior." Farnsworth's arrangements are spicy and full of interesting twists and I look forward to hearing more from this composer. Kudos as well to Merolla for bringing this writer's talents to our attention. Other choice numbers include Charles Greenlee's Latin-flavored "Marbella," a ballad version of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" (arranged by Rotondi) and the rip-roaring album ender "One for Bud" (by Aldo Farias). Bassist Lee Smith is solid in support, while allowing Merolla the spotlight, and the bandleader takes advantage to present incendiary propulsion throughout as well as producing several powerful and captivating solos. Highly recommended for fans of well-written and arranged hard bop, played by great musicians and led by an imaginative and vigorous drummer.
Randy Klein with Oleg Kireyev and Chris Washburne - "Sunday Morning"
Pianist/composer/producer Randy Klein has come up with a unique concept on Sunday Morning - the first in a series of CD recordings called Two Duos planned for Klein in conjunction with a list of improvising collaborators. On this first recording, he is joined by saxophonist Oleg Kireyev and trombonist Chris Washburne, who alternate as duet partners with Klein. The concept starts off strongly with Washburne up first on "Hiding Out." The trombonist growls in a teasing manner, playfully enhancing this delightful number. "Truly Yours" follows, with Klein playing what seems to be a tango-esque motif and Kireyev adding smoky tenor. The twisting "I Caught You in a Lie" brings Washburne back to play the the nagging spouse, while "Sunday Morning" sounds like a walk in the park on a sunny morning. Thankfully, the concept does not run stale, in large part due to the strength of Klein's compositions, but also to the sensitivity of the collaborators. Current favorite "House on the Hill" features Washburne's honeyed tones and Klein's jaunty piano in perfect sync, while the jittery "I've Got an Itch" will produce a smile. Much of the output is perfect to relax to, and the amount of depth and beauty produced by these duets is astonishing. The luscious "Petits Pois" is a classic, as is "Her Beautiful Soul" (both with smooth and sensitive trombone), while "Lottery Day" is Monkish and "Fly Free" presents Kireyev floating over a nice waltz. Klein continues to move forward as a player and composer and it will be interesting to hear this series as he presses forward with it.
Stevens, Siegel & Ferguson Trio - "Six"
One of our favorite pianists, Michael Jefry Stevens is back, along with bassist Tim Ferguson and drummer Jeff "Siege" Siegel in their long-running trio, with their 6th recording since 1990. Encompassing five standards and five originals, this album is a true delight, starting with the stunning opening arrangement of the Hart/Rodgers number "It Never Entered My MInd." The reinvention of this tune is a revelation - one of my favorite tracks this year - and Stevens' brilliant solo is almost worth the price of the album alone, but there is more to come, and the band's interplay is exceptional throughout. Other standards covered include unique and satisfying versions of "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Straight No Chaser," Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson's "My Baby Don't Care for Me," and wait until you hear what they do with the "Tennessee Waltz." Stevens has to be one of the most underrated pianists in jazz today, and I highly recommend you check his work out. Bassist Ferguson contributes two originals, including the burning "The Fire" and "Green Room" - which features a very cool bass solo intro. Drummer Siegel adds the moody 6/8 "Shifting Sands" and bluesy album-ending "Remembering Shirley." And Stevens puts his special touch to Brazilian music with his fabulous "Song for Rio." Great stuff!
John Escreet - "Don't Fight the Inevitable"
British-born, NYC-based young pianist John Escreet opened our eyes two years ago with his debut Consequences (see our review here) in which he was revealed as one of the leading young artists in modern jazz. On his sophomore effort, most of Escreet's band members from the debut return, with the exception of drummer Nasheet Waits replacing Tyshawn Sorey. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Matt Brewer and alto saxophonist David Binney - who has championed the young pianist and also serves as coproducer. This band recently returned from a tour of Europe and Escreet wanted to capture the sound of this unit. As with the first outing, this is edgy stuff, with the young pianist stretching boundaries and Binney playing as far out there as I have ever heard him.
"Civilization on Trial" opens up strongly with some of Escreet's best writing to date. Akinmusire and Binney puncture the off-kilter rhythms and shifting time signatures with contrapuntal and unison lines, while Waits is merciless in his velocity, before the song melts into electronics. The 11:48 title track brings visions of Ornette Coleman, Andrew Hill and the AACM with its intense improvisations and unusual structure. The middle section actually becomes quite melodic and features Akinmusire on some pleasing trumpet before a quirky Escreet solo again disintegrates into electronics. "Soundscape" (co-written by Binney) is an interesting experiments with sounds and electronics, while the first two minutes of "Magical Chemical (For the Future)" feature Escreet's dark and unsettling solo piano before the band kicks in on a 12:48 composition that builds through several changes and an energetic solo by the young pianist over Waits' propulsion. Finally, at the 9-minute mark, the music again shifts and Binney comes in with some enticing saxophone that unfurls into ecstasy. Lest you think Escreet is taking things too far, he offers the man himself - Charlie Parker - on Muhal Richard Abrams' "Charlie in the Parker." Here, the recorded voice of Parker answers critics by reminding us all that the music must always change and advance - and just as he once took the steps (and was sometimes met with scorn) - there will be younger players like Escreet taking new paths. Songs like the aggressive "Trouble and Activity," the balladic "Gone but Not Forgotten" (complete with breathy Binney solo) and haunting album-ending highlight "Avaricious World" are proof of Escreet's attempts to take the "rhythm, melody and harmony" Parker describes into the modern era.
Colin Towns and the HR-BigBand - "Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra"
(In and Out Records)
The resurgence of interest in guitarist John McLaughlin's groundbreaking '70s fusion band - the Mahavishnu Orchestra, continues with this fine new live release offering up several of the band's works arranged for a German big band by English soundtrack composer Colin Towns. Besides the interesting and well-played arrangements of some of the most beloved works of that seminal band, including "Birds of Fire," "Miles Ahead," "Sanctuary," "Cosmic Strut" and the incredible "Celestrial Terrestrial Commuters," this album also has the advantage of featuring world renowned drummer, and original member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham. Listeners initially put off by McLaughlin's unusual time-signatures and mystical leanings, may find themselves captivated by these layered charts, while fans of the original band may find joy in rediscovering songs like "Dawn," "One Word," "You Know You Know" and "Resolution." Of course, Cobham is the star of the proceedings, displaying his primal force drumming to full extent, while also exhibiting subtlety and maturity. He is given several solo spots and does not disappoint. Guitarist Martin Scales, meanwhile, is given the unenviable task of filling in for the legendary McLaughlin, and his fiery work is another highlight. The soloists from among the horns are all excellent and spirited and the band as a whole sounds superb from the opening "Hope" to the exhilarating "Meeting of the Spirits." Given the success of this project and other recent Mahavishnu Orchestra tributes, could a full-blown reunion of the original band be forthcoming? Fans can only hope for a meeting of those musical spirits.
The Stryker/Slagle Band - "Keeper"
For fans of well-played guitar, sax, bass and drums quartet, the latest release from the Stryker/Slagle Band will indeed be a "keeper." From the opening snap of drummer Victor Lewis' snare on the title track to the ringing cymbals that close the album on the rollicking "Good 4 U," this fine ensemble - led by guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist Steve Slagle (with bassist Jay Anderson - another excellent player rounding out the group) will delight the listener with their solid and exciting brand of straight-ahead jazz. This group has garnered much attention for their tight group interplay and consistent sound, and this record attests the continuance of the group in their endeavor. Stryker's title track is choppy funk with exuberant playing from all, while Slagle's "Bailout" won't solve the finical crisis, but it may help you forget it for a few minutes with its attractive good-time feel. A single cover - of Monk's "Ruby My Dear" slows down the pace momentarily and highlights Slagle's alto saxophone to fine effect. Stryker is content to comp beautifully before entering with a pleasing solo of his own. "Came to Believe" presents the leaders playing in unison over Lewis' incendiary drums, while "Bryce's Peace" is a touching tribute to the saxophonist's recently departed father - an artist who also created the colorful cover artwork for the album. The bluesy "Blue State," and playfully skipping "Sister" follow, while "Gold Dust" (featuring Slagle on soprano and Stryker on nylon-string guitar) is dedicated to organist Jared Gold - a frequent Stryker collaborator. These players don't push the envelope a whole lot, but instead rely on strong and sensitive performances to move their melodic songwriting into a high level. And rather than make music that browbeats its audience, this band seems determined to make their music "good for you."
Curtis Fuller - "I Will Tell Her"
There is a sense of sadness apparent in this fine new recording from trombonist Curtis Fuller - whose wife of 34 years (Cathy) recently passed away. The listener will be hard pressed to keep a dry eye during Fuller's solos on the title track - a ballad written 40 years ago for his late wife - and one she never had a chance to hear recorded. But this is more than a tribute album, and there is also a strong sense of joy of life and the spirit of perseverance expressed - appropriate sentiments from a man who emerged from a Detroit orphanage to become one of the finest trombonists in the history of jazz - one who was the first call choice of such luminaries as Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Smith and many more giants of the era. As a member of Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Fuller was expected to take a lead role akin to the sax and trumpet, and as such, helped elevate the instrument.
This new recording is a double CD release, featuring a live set as well as a studio recording. The band on this occasion consists of some of Denver's finest jazz musicians, including tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman - who became firm friends with Fuller when they met in 2005, subsequently releasing Dues in Progress in 2005. The camaraderie they felt with all the impressive musicians involved (Al Hood on trumpet, Chip Stephens on piano, Ken Walker on bass and Todd Reid on drums) led them to record this release of primarily Fuller compositions under Fuller's name. The recording is mostly hard driving straight-ahead tunes like the opening "Time Out," Kenny Dorham's "Minor's Holiday," the simmering and harmonious "Sagittarius," the African rhythm-filled "Maze," bouncy "The Court," fast-walking "Alamode" and the powerful disc-ending "The Clan" - which almost sets the speakers on fire with its ferocious energy. At age 75, Fuller is still playing at a high level and the interaction between these talented players is wonderful. The studio tracks are superb and warm, and the live ones (not originally intended for release) are extended and feature some of the hottest and most personal playing. Sonny Rollins' "Tenor Madness" is a case in point, as is the delightful Billy Eckstine number "I Want To Talk About You," (both showcasing Oxman to great effect) while the live version of the title track is simply heartbreaking in its beauty. If you dig those Blue Note label hard bop releases of yore, you are sure to want to grab a copy of this excellent double release that celebrates the life, love, friendship and music of an outstanding jazz artist.
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