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.
Tord Gustavsen - "Restored, Returned"
Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is a master of quiet minimalist playing that combines European classical jazz with elements of gospel and blues. He has acquired an international reputation through three piano trio recordings, but here expands his group to a quintet - adding saxophonist Tore Brunborg and vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen to long-time drummer Jarle Vespestad and new bassist Mats Eilertsen. The setting here remains fairly placid with a lullaby-theme running throughout ("Left Over Lullaby No.1-3"), but Brunborg heightens things with his darkly Garbarek-influenced saxophones. Interestingly, four lyrics from poet W.H. Auden are given vocal treatment by Asbjornsen - whose intriguing voice at times moves into a Billie Holiday-ish rough, blues-edged sound - most satisfyingly on the lusciously anthemic title track and the brilliant "profane gospel" song, "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love." The band kicks up some simmering blues on the stomping "The Swirl/Wrapped in a Yielding Air," while Gustavsen's classical/blues piano work on "Your Crooked Heart" is a model of economical lyricism expressing longing. Meanwhile, "The Child Within" and "The Gaze" are showcases for Brunborg's warm and weighty saxophone explorations. This combination of sensitive, contemplative playing and mysterious poetry is a quiet but powerful antidote for those sick of the same old sounds in the jazz world.
Grant Geissman - "Cool Man Cool"
Talk about cool. Grant Geissman may be best known for his ground-breaking guitar solo on Chuck Mangione's '70s hit "Feels So Good," but this talented musician has done much more than that over the years. The renaissance man has played on a multitude of film and television scores (Two and a Half Men, Monk, Dawson's Creek), is a noted author and expert on Mad Magazines and EC Comics and he has also released over a dozen albums as a leader. Many of these recordings have been considered to be in the contemporary jazz arena, but are heightened by many fine examples of Geissman's fiery fretwork. In 2006, Geissman released the critically lauded Say That, in which the guitarist returned to his mainstream and soul jazz roots, producing a delightful Wes Montgomery meets Jimmy Smith feel. On the follow-up, Cool Man Cool, Geissman continues in this satisfying vein, again backed by reed player Brian Scanlon, drummer Ray Brinker and bassist/tuba playerTrey Henry, along with several special guests including Chick Corea, Tom Scott, Patrice Rushen, Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante, the legendary Van Dyke Parks and old boss Mangione.
The title track opens up with finger snaps, walking upright bass and bongos taking us back to the beatnik era (as shown by the wonderful cover art and decals by artist Miles Thompson). Emilio Palme adds some tasty piano, and Geissman's ultra cool guitar work - at time in intricate unison runs with Scanlon's flute - is a highlight. "Chicken Shack Jack" has been jumped on by the radio airwaves, as it's funky, down-home blend of Wes/Grant Green-style guitar, sticky B-3 organ (by Jim Cox) and Tom Scott-supplied West Coast cool tenor sax is toe--tapping and addictive. Again, what could be fairly straight-forward is enhanced by sudden and surprising angular riffs - which are seamlessly melded into the architecture. The rip-roaring "Too Cool for School" has some of Geissman's hottest playing and is followed by the delightful Latin-flavored number "Chuck and Chick," on which the two jazz veterans appear. This great number offers Geissman burning up his Hernandis classical guitar (among several) and was written to resemble a merger between Corea and Mangione's styles. The flugelhornist here surprises with his strong and aggressive playing. All of the songs are a delight and follow the straight-ahead soul blues jazz theme - such as "One for Jerry" (with guitarist Jerry Hahn and former Hendrix organist Mike Finnigan) and the chewy album ending "Cool Blooz," but other directions are taken as well, such as on the lovely ballad, the 1930s-style "Minnie Lights Out," the second-line grooving "Nawlins," and the Martin Denny-tribute "Tiki Time" - which is an absolute hoot, as well as being a loving tribute to Space Age Bachelor Pad music. A truly wonderful trip back to the age of cool from Mr. Geissman and his gang of cool cats.
Soren Moller & Dick Oatts - "The Clouds Above"
Danish pianist Soren Moller spends much of his time in New York City as a founding member of the cutting-edge NYNDK jazz collective. Here he joins forced with his friend, veteran NYC-saxophonist Dick Oatts for a series of spirited duets that Moller derived based on views from his airplane flying over the Atlantic. The album opens with a brilliant take of Prokofiev's "Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet" (the only non-original) piece and this classically-tinged number announces that you are in for something different when after nearly a minute of improvised piano, Moller begins a muscular rhythm and Oatts arrives seemingly out of the blue in a moment that is breathtaking - not the only such moment in this intriguing take on a classical master's work. Moller - who studied with Kenny Barron, Garry Dial and Fred Hersch as a Fulbright Scholar, has impressed in the past with his work with NYNDK, and here he continues to show a combination of originality and technique in playing as well as composing. Oatts is a strong player with exceptional note choices and an attention-grabbing tone.You might well suspect this will be one of those delicate introspective albums, but although there is great beauty and sensitivity in the playing, it refreshingly never delves into the maudlin, and both artists perform with a stirring combination of power and energy. Reflections floats, but Moller's unique rhythmic approach takes things a step higher, while Oatts makes sure to always add the bitter to the sweet. The heart-pounding "The Clouds Above" not only lives up to its title, but reminds us just how much strength can be produced when two dynamic players combine their efforts. Meanwhile, the stunning "Wide Open Spaces" - perhaps the highlight - builds to a climax with Oatts simply soaring to higher and higher heights over Moller's incessant yet harmonious anvil pounding piano. No weak tunes in the bunch, "June Song" is perhaps the jazziest number of the collection, while the drifting album ender - "Butterfly" features Moller's lovely dark chords and Oatts' tough flute, perhaps a commentary on the state of the jazz artist in the world of today.
Algernon - "Ghost Surveillance"
Noise/art/jazz rockers Algernon are back with a vengeance on their new release - Ghost Surveillance. As on their previous album - Familiar Espionage (see our review here, this unit - led by guitarist Dave Miller - are out to peel the paint of the walls of conformity with their double-guitar, heavy bass and drums, vibes and electronics attack. Displaying their impressive sense of dynamics, the music moves from a whisper to a scream, with ambient moments of great beauty combined with shifting time signatures and walls of sound. Somewhat reminiscent of bands like King Crimson and Helmet, as well as fellow Chicagoan post-rockers Tortoise and Isotope 217, Algernon immerses the listener in waves of sound. Miller and Summerfield interlock their guitars, but are more interested in textures than in solos. Miller also spreads on the keyboards and electronic sounds that are the hallmark of this talented young man. Katie Wiegman's vibes add warmth, but she can hammer as well. Bassist Tom Perona navigates the undulating rhythms with confidence, while drummer Cory Healey produces heavy thunder on the drum kit. The songs flow together like a soundtrack, with songs like the rocking opener "The Briefing," former guitarist Nick Fryer's "Broken Lady," Perona's delightful Crimson-esque "Timekiller," "Operative vs Opposition," and "Objective Compromised" revealing multiple changes, sonic layers and bursts of noisy aggression within their contexts. These songs are bridged with shorter song experiments which are no less interesting in their brevity. Meanwhile, "Everybody Stay Calm," "The L Pill" and especially the lovely ambient middle section of "Debrief and Defect" are examples of the group's ability to produce beautiful music out their unique electronic landscape as well. Fun, contemplative and often scary/heart-pounding (in a good way) music for the new era.
"Groder & Greene"
Appearing on numerous top-ten lists for 2009, Groder & Greene brings together NYC free jazz trumpeter/flugelhorn player Brian Groder with Chicago-born/Amsterdam-based free jazz piano legend Burton Greene - veteran of the NYC Avanat Garde scene and contemporary of such folks as Archie Shepp,Henry Grimes and Bill Dixon. They are joined by alto saxophonist Rob Brown, double-bassist Adam Lane and drummer Ray Sage in creating eight efficacious improvised pieces that range from ferocious (the excellent opener "Landfall") to quiet and strange ("Amulet") with every variation between. The strength of the players and exceptional rapport they bring the sessions takes what should by any means be chaos and instead weaves spontaneous compositions out of the cacophony. All of the players exhibit exceptional abilities within this genre, with Greene attracting the ear with piano work that at times tinkles odd notes, or canters across the keys and at others pounds out furious fistfuls of block chords. He truly seems a perfect foil for Groder's strong melodic touch, and the other musicians also seem especially well chosen for this project. Superb tracks like "Only the Now," "Separate Being," "Nigh," and 'Surmised Wink" are remarkable examples of free jazz music at its finest - full of unexpected surprises mad intriguing directions, while the cover of Greene's "Hey Pithy, Can You Thropt the Erectus" is an engaging treat. "Cryptic Means" features the duo without the rest of the bend in a rewarding turn, and the haunting "Sleepwalker" ends this dreamlike experience (complete with nightmares) in delicious fashion. Locally, fans of the Velvet Lounge free form jam sessions should find this disc appealing.
RG Royal Sound Orchestra - "Impact"
Are you ready for an Afro-Cuban big band arrangement of the 1976 Eagles song "Hotel California?"
You may be after hearing the RG Royal Sound Orchestra's version that opens up the debut album from this group of top notch Miami musicians paired with a contingent of musicians from Spain. Producer Recaredo Gutierrez - also the founder of the Grammy-nominated Tropicana Al-Stars - here seeks to recreate the sound of the 1950s Cuban orchestras, but with an additional flamenco flavor. And indeed, if you close your eyes, you may feel like you are sitting in a club in Havana during the heyday of the big band era. The band also takes on the Neapolitan song from the turn of the century - "O Solo Mio," but Gutierrez has updated the song choices to include recent era popular music, including the Beatles' "Yesterday," the Elvis hit "Can't Help Falling in Love," the Sinatra hits "My Way," "Strangers in the Night" and "New York New York" - along with the disco era's "That's the Way," Dino's hit "Volare," Tony Bennett's theme song - "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "As Time Goes By" - and even the hugely popular (and sometimes despised) "Macarena." The arrangements (by eight different arrangers) are snappy, the love of classic Cubano music genuine and the production so glossy you can see yourself in it. Featured soloists include high-note specialist and Havana legend trumpeter Adalberto Lara "Trompetica" and his protege the 15-year-old trumpet phenom Richard Gutierrez - plus well-known Miami-based saxophonist Ed Calle, pianist Hilario Duran and guitarist Lindsey Blair. The nostalgic music contained here could easily fit the bill on an easy-listening format, yet offer plenty of hand-clapping/finger-snapping fun and excitement to cha-cha the night way to.
Erica Lindsay + Sumi Tonooka - "Initiation"
This is a wonderful straight-ahead saxophone and piano quartet session that succeeds due to the strength of the original compositions, the familiarity of the players (saxophonist Lindsay and pianist Tonooka have played together since 1994 - although this is their first studio recording), and also because of the talent of the musicians who include Rufus Reid on bass and the late Bob Braye on drums (both of whom had played with Tonooka) . Lindsay has an early-Coltrane/Joe Henderson feel to her sax playing - with a bit of an edgy tone. Although she has considerable experience playing "free" with various artists, she has a fine sense of melody which she augments with her ability to go in surprising directions. Her Bard College fellow instructor, Tonooka also has exceptional command of her instrument and an original approach. Sadly unrecorded, Critic Neil Tesser has nonetheless praised Tonooka's 1990's trio recordings as some of the best of that decade. Although Tonooka and Lindsay wrote all of the material (five songs each) Reid's intelligence and tone and Braye's formidable technique truly make for a well-rounded recording. Sadly, veteran drummer Braye passed away just a couple months after this recording was finished, but his fine work on this recording is a nice testimonial to his abilities. The pulsating "Mari" opens things brightly with great work from the band and Lindsay's fiery sax before the haunting ballad "Mingus Mood" takes the listener into a dark and smoky nightclub, complete with wonderful Reid bass solo. "South Street" is street tough with great piano, while the fantastic jangly title track takes Lindsay and Tonooka in a completely different and more angular direction. Meanwhile, strong tracks like "Black Urgency," the heart-breaking "The Gift" (written for Tonooka's late mother) and the indescribable album-ending "Yes" offer strong and interesting playing, solid and creative writing and great band interplay to help make this release a winner.
Mark Weinstein - "Timbasa"
Perhaps the hardest-working man in jazz today, flautist Mark Weinstein is back with yet another Latin jazz release - this time with award-winning Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez (with whom he worked on his Algo Mas and Con Alma (see our review here) albums. Busy having just released Jazz Brasil with Kenny Barron and with another shortly to be released (the Brazilian-flavored Lua e So - he has released 15 albums since 1996) Weinstein was somewhat reticent when approached by Martinez to record again, but was convinced when the percussion master said he could supply a group of truly exceptional (mostly) Cuban musicians. The album was recorded in one day-long session and captures the excitement that is produced when great players are put together and set free. Classic tunes covered include "Milestones," "Footprints" (in 7/4 - a true highlight!), Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," Chucho Valdes' "A Ernesto" and a rollicking "Caravan," while four originals (including a great album-ending version of Weinstein's "Just Another Guajira" - revisited from his 1960's classic Cuban Roots album). As always, Weinstein's flute is dancing and delightful - at times recalling the groundbreaking Herbie Mann, while pianist Axel Tosca Laugart is an absolute knockout (Weinstein says he is the best he has recorded with - high praise considering he has played with Barron and Chick Corea). Imaginative electric bassist Panagiotis Andreou (check his introduction to "Caravan" where he sings and plays along) , drummer Mauricio Herrera and bongo/bata player Ogduardo join Martinez to form what Weinstein says is the best rhythm section he has ever played with (yet another amazing claim from someone who has played with some of the best Afro-Cuban groups of the last fifty years). It is hard to argue with Weinstein as the rhythm section really shines. Despite the energetic and intricate drumming and juicy bass solos, the music here is often as relaxed as an island beach - and although it is toe-tapping, it doesn't raise your heart-rate to unacceptable levels like some of the most blistering and in-your-face Afro-Cuban music. The 69-year-old Weinstein is experiencing a resurgence of his career and continues to produce some of the finest recordings of Latin jazz around. No sign of slowing down either - he says he has two new tango albums in the work.
Megitza Quartet - "Boleritza"
Chicago's large population of people of Polish, Serbian and other Eastern countries has brought forth such jazz artists as singers Graznya Augusik, Agnieska Iwanska, guitarists Goran Ivanovic and bassist Matt Ulery. Led by vocalist/acoustic bassist Malgorzata Babiarz, the Megitza Quartet explores a mixture of jazz, classical and world music with gypsy and Eastern European influences. Other quartet members include guitarist Andreas Kapsalis, drummer Jamie Gallagher and Marcek Lichota on accordion. They are joined by violinists Roby Lakatos and Krzysztof Zubek, clarinetist Tim Sundusky, saxophonist Doug Abram, trumpeter Gerald Bailey and Rob Pleshar on sousaphone helping to flesh out the sound. The title track opens up things with a full anthemic sound - with Babiarz and producer Sandusky providing an entire choir, while "Mamo Temera" is a satisfying gypsy swing. The sultry "Cisza (Silence)" follows and unexpectedly brings a Latin/Brazilian flavor to the Balkans. "Krywaniu" touches on tango, while Kapsalis' "17_14" features Zubek's pizzicato violin and Grapelli-like long lines and some tangy guitar in a sparkling Django-esque number. Throughout, Babariaz's strong vocals engage the senses, while Lichota's romantic accordion is a treat as well. The blend of traditional folk music and originals are played and sung very well and make for an intriguing visit to the Old World.
Prana Trio - 'The Singing Image of Fire"
Using ancient Persian, Indian and Chinese texts as inspiration, drummer Brian Adler's Prana Trio, featuring vocalist Sunny Kim, offers a mysterious and highly unique recording. Adler's compelling world beats and Kim's clear and strong vocals center the compositions, while pianists Frank Carlberg and Carmen Staaf, bassists Nathan Goheen and Matt Aronoff and guitarist Robert Lanzetti help flesh out the sound lightly. Music ranges the from gentle yet unsettling "The Drop and the Sea" to the pulsating title track, further intensified by Lanzetti's blazing electric guitar. Staaf adds accordion on "Kangbyunsalja," while Adler's tabla on "Out Beyond Ideas" combines with Carlberg's improvised piano and Kim's spoken word on another satisfying little gem. Aronoff's bowed bass brings additional depth to "I Felt Love." A sense of space and pacing permeates the often primal music, with the musicians displaying a noteworthy ability to contribute restrained support to Kim's floating vocals. Beautiful and haunting as a jungle temple, with finger on the pulse of humanity, Prana Trio speaks of the universality of poetry and music across many cultures.
Robin Verheyen - "Starbound"(Pirouet)
Score another one for the Belgian jazz scene as award-winning young saxophonist Robin Verheyen joins with fellow countrymen bassist Nicolas Thys and drummer Dre Pallemaerts, along with American pianist Bill Carrothers, to produce an intriguing new Pirouet release. Mostly playing soprano - the New York-based saxophonist (who studied with Dave Liebman) offers an at times edgy, at times modulated, take on modern jazz. The solid rhythm section lays a foundation well and keeps things moving when needed, while Verheyen and Carrothers trade highly adventurous soloing. The hard-charging burner "On the House" opens up and Verheyen and Carrothers immediately make sure the listener knows that it is going to be a wild ride at times. But the ride is an enjoyable one and "Boechout" smooths things and adds space. Thys shows why he is such an up-and-coming star on the bass (check out his excellent solo on "Flight of the Eagle"), while Verheyen's soprano is lovely but not sweet. Carrothers is the perfect complement to the young sax player, providing lines that are astonishing in their originality. The music is subtle and lyrical, but stretches boundaries. Verheyen's soprano dances lightly but in unexpected directions on the joyous title track, while Carrothers matches him - skipping across the keys with abandon. But the frightening eleven-minute long "Lamenting" follows and gives the young artist an opportunity to pierce your heart with the blade of his tenor. The somersaulting soprano returns on the galloping "Roscoepaje," while "Waves" lives up to it's title without becoming cliched. Thys pitches in the prancing "Long Island City" before things slow down beautifully for an ending triad of "Narcis," "Tree Line" and a brief cover of Harry Warren's "I Wish I Knew."
Vince Norman Joe McCarthy Big Band - "Bright Future"
This Washington D.C. big band will knock you out right off the bat as opening composition "Knight for a Day (Dragon's Demise)" features an ample horn section blasting out of the speakers. With an exciting arrangement that hints at some of Gil Evans' "Porgy and Bess" themes with a Maynard Ferguson touch and some tasty solos, a big band fan will find themselves pleasantly entranced. Led by veteran multi-reedist, primary soloist, primary composer and arranger Vince Norman and drummer Joe McCarthy, who both have military band ties - who knew the stars and stripes could swing like this? Running through this new release is the shadow of saxophonists Stanley Turrentine - whose "Sugar" is covered here and also was the inspiration for two other songs, and Grover Washington, Jr. - who is given his due on the grooving "Super Grover." "Peanuts" piano legend Vince Guaraldi - of "Linus and Lucy" fame - is also feted on the wonderful waltz "Goodbye Mr. Schultz" - with nice piano work by Tony Nalker. The blend of pop jazz and big band is attractive. Delicious arrangements and fine solos highlight songs like the Latin-flavored "For My Beloved" and the catchy bass-driven "Ah Dju Bah." Meanwhile, Norman's solo on melodica on his lovely ballad "Katelyn" is a true highlight along with the intricate Latin-groove of "Connect the Dots" (with excellent Bb soprano solo by Norman). The multi-talented Norman switches to tenor on the brightly swinging title track, then does double-duty on alto and C soprano on their 5/4 take on "Sugar." Full of colorful arrangements and rock solid playing on a well-recorded and mixed recording, this particular band does appear to have a bright future. And maybe the big band genre as well.
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