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.
Alison Ruble - "Ashland"
Ashland is a street in Chicago that runs almost continuously from the far north near Rosehill Cemetary to 183rd Street in far south Homewood - (with a few interuptions) a route that cuts a swath through many different cultural neighborhoods. The word could also be interpreted as a "land of ashes" - a place where things are burned to provide warmth from the chill, or memories of lives and loves lost are turned to ash through the violence of fire. Ashland is also the title of singer Alison Ruble's stunning new album and the word certainly fits this release well. Ruble's cool voice hangs glittering like frost on a bare tree in the sunlight as she navigates an eclectic and enthralling mixture of standards and recent pop classics.
The song selection is aided greatly the recording and the arrangements by guitarist John McLean (seen and heard most recently backing Kurt Elling). Meanwhile, McLean and Ruble's reformulating of these songs is nothing short of breathtaking, and they enlisted a fine group of musicians (many the same as appeared on Ruble's 2008 release "This is a Bird") in this endeavor - including reedman Jim Gailoreto, bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jim Widlowski, Karl Montzka on Hammond B-3 and Jill Kaeding on cello. It is Ruble and McLean's masterful utilization of the artists at their disposal that recalls a master painter using only the necessary colors from his/her pallette to achive a masterpiece. Case in point - the opening Bergman/Legrand composition, "The Summer Knows," is rendered initially only with Ruble's voice and McLean's brilliant acoustic guitar, before flute, cello, bass and drums enter - making this number a highlight of mystery and longing that builds to a thrilling climax. The talented McLean is a guitarist who can burn and shred with the best, but can also be among the most sensitive players around, as he is here.
This inventive reworking continues on another startling reworking of a classic - in this case Gershwin's "S'Wonderful" - which is reinvented into a guitar, organ number with nice solos by McLean and Gailoreto on tenor, powerful bass work from Kohut and lots of surprises. Other standards include "Let's Fall in Love," "Night and Day" and "Route 66," all given incredible new arrangements that bring new life to these old chestnuts - a noteworthy achievement. I refuse to go into greater detail, as one of the pleasures for the listener is discovering what twists and turns have been applied to these songs. Additionally, Ruble sets her sights on tunes like Emmy Lou Harris' "Here I Am" - rendered beautifully with goosebump-inducing organ, strong acoustic guitars by McLean and lovely harmonies by Ruble, as well as such modern classics as Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," The Church's "Under the Milky Way" and an especially unusual choice - King Crimson's "Matte Kudasai," which may initially seem strange, but all end up being appropriate choices.
I once interviewed Steve Kilbey of The Church - who discussed the beauty inherent in melancholy (as opposed to the despair found in nihilism) - and I am reminded of that idea as I listen to this impressive and insightful soundtrack for a walk through a strange, yet beautiful land of ashes.
Alexander McCabe - "Quiz"
(Consolidated Artists Productions)
Boston-born alto saxophonist McCabe is deserving of your consideration as a modern artist who is steeped in the tradition of great players, including Trane, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderly, George Coleman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and more. On this delightful straight-ahead (yet at times delightfully jagged) set, McCabe is backed by pianist Uri Caine (who is more noted for his avant garde credentials, but here seems perfectly at home playing in a more straight-ahead context), bassist Ugonna Okegwo (Tom Harrell, Benny Golson, Pharoah Sanders) and drummers Greg Hutchinson (Joe Henderson, Ray Brown) and Rudy Royston (Bill Frisell, Tia Fuller). The band comes out swinging on "Weezie's Waltz" which will immediately bring a smile to your face, while reminding you of Trane's work with McCoy Tyner on My Favorite Things. Royston's ebullient drumming is a treat here as well. "Lonnegan" is a straight-ahead burner with McCabe employing a somewhat piercing tone that is quite appealing. It is astounding to hear Caine in this setting and he excels - adding some intriguing touches to his straight ahead playing. Both Okegwo and drummer Hutchinson get into the act with solid solos here too. "Kalido" (also with Hutchinson on drums) is a another piece in waltz time that adds enough of a free edge to the mainstream arrangement to please, while the title track simmers with quiet fire. "Good Morning Heartache" - a hit for Billie Holiday - is given epic (12:05) proportions, which once again resemble Coltrane and Tyner's work from the early '60s, and this song is perhaps the highlight of the recording - with great work from all and truly outstanding solos from Caine and McCabe. The too-brief "St. Pat" takes things in a more free form direction, albeit a quite appealing one, while the album ends with a sterling take on the standard "How Little We Know" - with McCabe displaying a superior melodic feel - that will leave the listener humming. McCabe has been making a name for himself as a player on the rise and this reputation will certainly be enhanced by this fine gem of a recording.
Ryan Cohan - "Another Look"
Ryan Cohan is one of the top pianists working in the city of Chicago. Currently the pianist for Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Cohan has perfromed with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, as well as artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Jon Faddis, Regina Carter, Paquito D'Rivera and more, while also working as an educator as the assistant director of the small and large ensembles at The Univesity of Illinois at Chicago and as an international clinician. On top of all of these duties, Cohan has somehow found time to write soundtracks as well as compose and release several albums of original music. His third release as a leader - 2007's One Sky was a breathtaking display of Cohan's abilty to compose across a wide range of styles, including some Latin flavor, complex horn arrangements and highly original and beautiful piano-based directions that seemed perfect for a film score; whereas, his new album - Another Look shifts the emphasis to more of a straight-ahead small combo presentation, at which he proves to be equally adept.
The strength of these compositions is served well by the group Cohan has assembled, which includes his long-running quartet of bassist Lorin Cohen, drummer Kobie Watkins and reedman extraordinaire Geof Bradfield. This core is joined by percussionist Steve Kroon and the ultra-talented Joe Locke on vibes. The result is a hard-hitting package that recalls the classic music of the 1950s. Opening track "Monk'n Around" is a case in point, with Cohan touching on Monk-like directions in his playing and writing, while also showing he had absorbed the lessons of other greats like Tyner, Powell, Peterson, Hancock and Garner and developed a style of his own. The rhythm section is tight as you could wish, and Bradfield's ability to play tenor and soprano saxes, as well as bass clarinet adds another dimension to the sound, and he adds several great solos. Meanwhile, Locke is his usual stellar self - playing with energy and taste. Victor Feldman's "Joshua" is another standout track - one that never fails to get audiences excited when performed live, and the band's sizzling energy is captured well here in the studio on a version that almost jumps off the CD and into your lap, with Cohan's fingers flying across the keyboard on an unbelievable solo. Kroon adds some choice percussion to the lovely original ballad "You & Me" and the gently-swinging, shape-shifting "This or That." The band negotiates this difficult number with abandon, while Bradfield again shows why he is considered one of the finest saxophonists in the city. Cohan ingeniously reinvents the oft-covered "Caravan" into a stripped down trio-plus-Kroon version that breathes life into this number with an awe-inspiring display of piano invention.
Bradfield opens the sweet and sparkling "Gentle Souls" - and adds delirious soprano to one of the loveliest tunes Cohan has written. The Latin poly-rhythmic title track gives Locke a spotlight for his rapid-fire approach, with Bradfield enhancing the seemingly-disjointed rhythms with his bass clarinet. Cohan's masterful opening to the waltzing "Song for My Grandfather" is another highlight, while the song itself is more proof of the high level of Cohan's compositional talent as well. "Steppin' Up" ends things on virtually the same note we started on with an enchanting bebop number (complete with some tasty Watkins drum breaks) that ends this fine album on an upswing.
Lexicon - "Lexicon"
I know it's probably hard for Chicagoans to believe it, but there is life outside the city limits. In this case, even downstate. The band Lexicon hails from Bloomington, IL - home of Illinois State
University - and this is one first rate modern progressive jazz fusion band. Consisting of guitarist Erik Swanson (also provides the compositions), saxophonist Travis Thacker, bassist Ryan Nolan and drummer Michael Carlson, Lexicon leaps right into action on this self-titled album with the boisterous "Uncle Hunk," while the catchy "Country Gingham" shows their melodic bend. This is impressive, inventive music and the band is really tight and musical. There isn't a lot of information out there about these children of the corn, but with great music like this, I would suspect the buzz will catch on. Tunes like "Brenard's Assailiant." the moody "Seekness," bouncy yet twisted "Enjoy Yourself," "Cutty Sark," raucous "No Name," undulating "Cop Out," rocking "This May Not Be Real," electro-funky "Riddled," the Hendrix-on-speed "Pillage Little" and the epic underwater journey of "Lundqvist" (maybe my favorite track) will keep listeners locked in and engaged as this strong recording reveals confident and technically proficient musicians performing sophisticated and complex compositions that are still fun to listen to. Great stuff! Lexicon performs occasionally in the Chicago area, and I'd really like to catch their live act one of these days. After hearing this album, you will too.
Morelo and Barth - "Fim de Semana em Eldorado"
(In + Out Records)
When Europeans Germany's Paulo Morello (guitar) and Denmark's Kim Barth (alto sax and flute) traveled to Rio in 2001, they thought it would be just a pleasant vacation. Instead, the two found themselves living in the Ipanema section of the city - just two doors from Jobim's former home, where they were warmly welcomed by the Carioca musicians and began actively collaborating with some of the very best, including the members of Lenny Andrade's talented band, who accompany them on this recording. With a goal of combining the sounds of traditional Brazilian music with modern jazz sounds, the band recorded several originals along with four Brazilian classics. The sound is fresh, clean and appealing as a summer breeze, and the band gives the entire recording a strong sense of authenticity. Both Morello and Barth are exquisite soloists who know the value of tasteful playing, while this pleasing recording is topped off with guest appearances from two legendary Brazilian singers. Singer Johnny Alf is considered by many to be the father of the bossa nova, while Alaide Costa has been called the "Billie Holiday of Brazil." The addition of these two vocal greats is simply the frosting on the top of this already delicious musical cake, and makes this release a must have for fans of the Brazilian genre.
Archie Shepp - "The New York Contemporary Five"
Recorded live in 1963 at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen Denmark, this re-release offers the legendary free jazz supergroup NYC5 performing Ornette Coleman's "O.C." and "When Will the Blues Leave," Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie," as well as originals by members cornetist Don Cherry, tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and Afro-Danish alto saxophonist John Tchicai, with many of the arrangements by Bill Dixon. This is a fascinating look at these avant garde pioneers - with only Cherry being well-known at the time, and Shepp and Tchicai only just finding themselves. Backed by bassist Don Moore and drummer J.C. Moses, the emphasis is on enthralling exploration by the soloists, exuberant band interplay and interesting Ornette/Dixon-inspired charts, that will entertain from the moment they start off the album (on Cherry's "Cisum" - a tune inexplicably left off the original release) with the well-known opening phrase from Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" to Tchicai's cooly-swinging "Mik" that ends the album. A ferocious recording with raw nerve endings exposed in the performances, it suitably captures the era when the avant garde first reared its head to the world. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this recording of this groundbreaking group is listening to the contrast of playing styles between Shepp - who would go on to greater fame as one of the leaders of the American avant garde scene, and Tchicai - still two years before his coming out party on John Coltrane's Ascension - with the former's deconstruction of traditional sounds and the latter's bright and highly original melodic directions both heralding a new age in music.
Matt Geraghty Project - "Departures"
Former Chicagoan, bassist Matt Geraghty continues to make the world a smaller place with his engaging mixture of catchy modern jazz and world music on his new release Departures . As on his latest album, Passport, Geraghty has assembled another world class group of musicians from disparate cultural backgrounds. These players include Polish vocalist Anna Maria Jopek, pianist Misha Tsiganov, drummers Adriano Santos and Mark Walker, sarangi player Ramesh Misra, Ara Dinkjian on cumbus and oud, guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg, Gil Goldstein on piano and accordion, and trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Chicagoans will also be pleased to learn that talented local guitar hero Neal Alger makes his presence felt on a majority of the tracks. The haunting combination of Geraghty's bowed bass and Misra's sarangi (an Indian violin-like bowed instrument) opens the album and are soon joined by Jopek's strong vocals and Alger's sensitive guitar on "Gdy Nie Zrozumiesz." "The Girl from Barrio Alto" shows clearly Geraghty's goal of combining modern jazz elements with traditional world music - as Dinkjian's oud and a Middle-Eastern flavor leads into Tsiganov's excellent piano and Alger again adding excellent guitar work. Goldstein's wonderful accordion takes center stage on the luminous "Leaving My Gypsy Woman in Vienna," a true highlight of romantic longing. Kreisberg's melodic guitar shines on "Song For Joanna" - another leisurely-paced composition with more beautiful accordion work. "When Clouds Speak" presents Alger's guitar, Misra's sarangi and wordless vocals by Jopek on a tune that will transport the listener into the clouds.
Of course, throughout, Geraghty's bass is central and his playing a fine example of how to play tastefully. A bass solo version of Jimmy Webb's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (?!) is followed by the grooving "Flight 417," the lovely "Sunset Streaks the Airplane Wing" (with Alger burning it up on nylon-string guitar). "Midnight in Madrid" showcases Geraghty on a splendid acoustic bass solo, while Kreisberg returns for some tough love guitar licks on the powerful "Lost in Shinjuku." As on Passport, Geraghty returns to the good ol' NYC for the urban groove of "Manhattan in Three Minutes" - which features Tsiganov on Fender Rhodes and Avashai Cohen on trumpet. Since politicians can't seem to do it, perhaps we should elect musicians like Matt Geraghty to office because enjoyable music like this can work the magic to bring people together.
Anat Fort - "And If" (ECM)
Israeli-American pianist Anat Fort's debut recording A Long Story was released in 2007 and this excellent quartet recording with drummer Paul Motian, bassist Ed Schuller and clarinetist Perry Robinson was included in our top 20 albums of that year while being awarded our "Debut of the Year" as well (see our review ). Her new, highly-anticipated recording And If features the sensitive pianist in a trio setting with her regular band-mates, drummer Roland Schneider and bassist Gary Wang. This new release is a mostly quiet and sparse recording that doesn't quite reach the heights of her previous effort, but still offers plenty of moments of sheer beauty, while keeping Fort squarely in the public eye as an ascendant composer of note. Fort's style can be described as a floating, shimmering mixture of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Paul Bley and classical-inspired dreaminess. The album is book-ended by two versions of a song titled after her mentor ("Paul Motian"), and is centered by an extended version of "Something About Camels" (from A Long Story) - a piece that clearly exhibits Fort's Middle-Eastern heritage. Some highlight numbers include the sunny "Clouds Moving" - which gives the band a chance to groove, and the lovely, classically-flavored "En If." Two paeans to Minnesota where she recently spent a residency ("Lanesboro," and "Minnesota" - with a gorgeous bass solo by Wang) are attractive pieces, while "Some" and "Nu' bring a bit of needed edginess to mostly balladic proceedings. Although this trio has played together for a decade and they work together well, I would love to hear the group kick things up a notch with a bit more frequency, however, this is certainly a charmingly subtle and melodic outing which will please lovers of Keith Jarrett/Bill Evans style piano trio.
James "Blood" Ulmer - "Inandout"
(In + Out Records)
Former Ornette Coleman guitarist James Blood Ulmer is still lashing out with his scorpion sting guitar licks and soulful vocals, as evidenced on his strong new release In and Out (on the In and Out label). Backed wonderfully by bassist Mark Peterson and drummer Aubrey Dayle, the veteran starts things off with the incendiary blues of "No Man's Land" - which resembles Jimi Hendrix while also including Ulmer's trademark skittering guitar riffs. The poignant lyrics question why people are fighting over land and Ulmer's gravely quavering voice brings heartfelt emotion to this intense number. The band shifts gears into free jazz territory on "A Thing For Joe" and Ulmer tears off riff after riff in his one-of-a-kind fashion over Dayle's propulsive drumming - something that continues on the powerful "Fat Mama." (Ulmer also shows some nice chops on the flute on the former number) But things don't stay outside for long, as "Eviction" sounds like a '60s surf band playing swing, and "Baby Talk" funks it up with Ulmer baby babbling on his guitar on this ragged tune. "Maya" ("take me higher") is an engaging psychedelic blues, while "My Woman" sounds like it came out of Austin, Texas. The rest of the album alternates between quirky ("High Yellow") blues rock jazz fusion (the killer "I Believe in You") and the jazzy album-ending "Backbiter." Great stuff from a highly unique artist.
Theo Bleckmann - "I Dwell in Possibilty"
Inspired by the 1960s Italian Arte Povera movement and film director Lars van Trier's Dogme 95 ideals, singer Theo Bleckmann and producer Stefan Winter chose to record this interesting new solo album at the Beinwil monestary in Switzerland without using any electronic processing for reverb or echo. The German-born Bleckmann has been making waves on the N.Y.C. scene - working with Meredith Monk, John Hollenbeck, Laurie Anderson and Ben Monder. Here, Bleckmann takes on an eclectic song list that includes Emily Dickinson (the title track - music by Bleckmann), standards "I Hear a Rhapsody" and "Comes Love," a prayer from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a poetic fragment from Euripides, original songs and improvisations, a Meredith Monk composition ("Wa-lie-oh"), as well as songs from Joni Mitchell ("The Fiddle and the Drum"), James Taylor ("Lonesome Road") and Supertramp ("Lord Is It Mine"). Bleckmann sings in a wide range of styles from cabaret to yodeling to Gregorian and Middle-Eastern chanting, while accompanying himself only with an odd assortment of "instruments": autoharp, chimes, flutes, glass harp, hand-held fan, Indonesian frog buzzer, musical boxes, toy megaphone, melodica, water bottle, iPhone (?!) and more - all of which are given added depth by the surrounding monastery walls. The result is a haunting, yet at times humorous, investigation into the possibilities a single singer and a handful of songs can discover when nearly everything is stripped away.
The JT Jazz Project - "Good Times"
(Jevon Music Group)
Contemporary jazz with an R&B flavor is alive and well in the Western suburbs, as proven by this fine release from tenor saxophonist/composer/producer Jeffrey "JT" Thompson - whose JT Jazz Project new release Good Times is an attractive mixture of smooth melodies and funk grooves combined with blues, pop, hip-hop, rap and even a touch of fusion. These well-written and recorded tracks are played by some of the best musicians in the Joliet and Chicago areas, including bassists Bob Ferraris, Mike Daly and Devalin Booker, drummer Paul Townsend, keyboardist Matt Nelson and guitarist Lou Ledesma. "Grover's Mode" starts things off with a nod to contemporary jazz pioneer Grover Washington on an appealing tune with seductive tenor work from Thompson and a sparkling Rhodes solo from Nelson. Vocal tracks with great arrangements and intelligent lyrics like the catchy "Steppin' in the Chi," the blistering put down of "Treated," "Miles to Go," "Can't Get No Higher," "Heaven's House Band," "I Feel You," "Lil off the Top" and seductive Latin-flavored "Quero Bailar Contigo" are tasty treats with strong work from vocalists and rappers Elvin "El" Thornton, Evon House Thompson, Devlin Thompson, Jason "Futaristic" Daniels and Donald Brash, and it is clear that Thompson has studied his Tower of Power; Earth, Wind and Fire and Tony, Toni, Tone songbooks as well as people like the aforementioned Grover Washington. Personal favorites include the fusion-esque "House on the Southside" (featuring Shawn Maxwell on alto sax), Thompson's one-man-band tune "Funkin' Myself" and the tough as nails "Joliet Blues." Nice work with outstanding production - I look forward to hearing more from the talented Mr. JT.
Mike Mainieri - "Crescent" - featuring Charlie Mariano and Dieter Ilg
Vibraphonist Mainieri is best known as the leader of the long-running Steps Ahead group - whose ever-changing lineup has included many of the best players in jazz, including saxophonists Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer and Donny McCaslin; guitarists Mike Stern, Paul jackson & Wayne Krantz; bassists Victor Bailey, Daryl Jones and Larry Grenadier; and drummers Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine and "Tain" Watts (among many other notables). Alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano played with Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, Elvin Jones and ex-wife Toshiko Akiyoshi before pioneering jazz fusion, working with Indian musicians and finally settling in Germany where he worked for years with European artists like Eberhard Weber and Phillip Catherine. Sadly, Mariano is probably more well known in Europe than in the U.S., but he seems to have accepted his status with good nature. His recent death in 2009 makes this 2005 double-CD trio recording of Coltrane songs and standards Trane was associated with (mostly unrehearsed first takes) even more poignant as it was one of Mariano's last records. I say trio because these two artists are joined by talented European bassist Dieter Ilg - who was a frequent collaborator with the saxophonist in his later years. Meanwhile, Mainieri's cool vibes seem a great fit for these tunes, it is a pleasure to hear Mariano's relaxed alto, and Ilg is a welcome addition who adds solid support and an undercurrent of energy. Old favorites like "Naima" and "Giant Steps" are joined by some that may be less familiar to those not familiar with the Coltrane canon - like the beautiful "Wise One." Strong playing from three players comfortable with each other - highlights include the Latin-tinged "Ole," the moody "Mr. Syms," "Bye Bye Blackbird" and the simmering, off-kilter take on "Giant Steps." The album ends with a duet version of "America the Beautiful" - which seems a bit out of place, but features lovely playing. A pleasing set of Coltrane music and Coltrane-inspired music that is also a heartfelt goodbye from a saxophone great and a tribute from two of his friends.