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.
Mark Egan - "Truth Be Told"
Veteran electric fusion bassist Mark Egan may still be best known for his membership in the original Pat Metheny Group lineup in the late '70s, but since then he has kept busy as an in-demand sideman, member of the long-running fusion group Elements and bandleader - releasing five albums of original compositions. Much of this work was groundbreaking in the use of ethereal sounds, layers and textures and exotic world music elements, while featuring his virtuostic and lyrical fretless bass lines. But Egan shares a love of funk and R&B with his predecessor Jaco Pastoriuos, and on his sixth release - Truth Be Told - Egan chose to write more groove-oriented material and to record primarily on a fretted instrument. One reason was that the drummer for the session would be Vinnie Colaiuta and the drummer responds with some stellar work on the skins. The other members of the ensemble include talented keyboardist Mitch Forman and renowned percussionist Roger Squitero, as well as saxophonist Bill Evans - who nearly steals the show with his excellent work.
Any doubt as to Egan's intent is immediately cleared up by the opening number - "Frog Legs" with Forman's greasy organ over Colaiuta's powerful backbeat. Evans shreds on soprano, Forman sparkles on acoustic piano and Egan provides a beautiful rubbery bass solo. "Gargoyle" reminds one of the Tom Scott sound of the '70s, as do quite a few of the songs. But they are redolent with Egan's own touches - his strong melodic feel (the fretless returns at times), world music touches (the sitar sounds on "Blue Launch" and "After Thought") and complex unison lines. Forman's Fender Rhodes adds to the retro feel, while Evans again burns - this time on tenor. Meanwhile, Colaiuta puts on a clinic as to how to play funk drums. Many great tunes, but the snappy title track and the hard-charging "Cafe Risque" stand out - the latter with superb Jaco-esque bass and a catchy horn chart. And the unusually-metered “Pepe” also is great fun. Not unlike Grant Geissman's recent return to straight-ahead jazz, Egan's return to the funky sounds he started with seems to be a successful move. Truth Be Told is a well-recorded release of jazz funk fusion with great playing by all involved, and this recording will please fans of the genre - soothing the soul, while keeping your head bopping.
Luis Munoz - "Invisible"
Acclaimed Costa Rican composer/producer/percussionist/pianist Luis Munoz's work has been rightfully hailed worldwide, with his previous two releases Vida (2004) and Of Soul and Shadow (2007) receiving excellent reviews and numerous awards. No doubt Munoz's latest release will continue to cement his reputation as one of the finest and most creative Latin Jazz artists alive, as Invisible is a luminous work full of beautiful subtlety and life spirit. The shimmering "Adam's Dream" starts this wonderful musical journey off with a peaceful, yet insistent pull - somewhat reminiscent of the relaxed vibe engendered by Danilo Perez and Claus Ogerman on Across a Crystal Sea. This delicious atmosphere continues on "Luz Del Sur" - which manages to merge island marimbas and percussion with pedal steel guitar and Ennio Morricone soundtrack trumpet (by Jonathan Dane) in a manner so natural you wonder why everyone doesn't do it. Munoz's production stars, and his arrangements are colorful and precise as a fine watercolor. "Sobrevivencia" is upbeat and somewhat more traditional Latin Jazz sounding (albeit with Munoz's complexities) and features the brilliant David Binney (a huge South and Central American music fan) on a slippery waterfall alto solo. The rest of the album maneuvers nicely between twilight shades (with great nylon-string guitar work by Chris Judge) to original takes on modern Latin jazz (Ron Kalina's chromatic harmonica is a treat on "Marantial"), with even a delightful tango (with violin by Laura Hackstein and Munoz on piano and alto flute) to end the album. But perhaps the centerpiece of Invisible - which is dedicated to the sick, poor and homeless - the invisible among us - is the inspiring, gospel-influenced "Hymn" with Lois Mahalia on vocals - which offers up a soaring positive note of hope that is much appreciated in these dark times. One of my favorite albums so far this year.
Rob Clearfield - "A Thousand Words"
An artist sitting alone at a grand piano improvising can be a transcendent experience. Pianists like Keith Jarrett, Stefano Bollani, Brad Mehldau and Paul Bley have explored this direction, which calls for a high level of skill, sensitivity, guts and the ability to tap into a seemingly spiritual level of the subconscious. In this vein, Rob Clearfield sat down at the Fazioli 212 Grand Piano at Chicago's PianoForte this last year and with only a few preconceived ideas and just started playing. And the spirit flowed through him. Clearfield says he has been improvising solo piano for years, but this is the first time he has recorded his output for public consumption, and his years of experience and deep creativity shine through. The compositions fuse various classical, jazz and pop components into engaging songs across many disparate moods - all spun out of thin air, yet sounding as if they had been composed. The lovely opener "Was So Young" is stately and classically-orientated, while "Arctic Circle" lives up to it's chilly title with a sense of mysterious beauty. Clearfield explores rhythm on the jangling "The Sherrif" (sic), while "Etch-A-Sketch" is a sketch in angular intervals. The 10:37 "Song" may be the most initially memorable, with a strong melodic theme which recalls the pop hit "You Are So Beautiful," and features some of Rob's most quietly joyous and heartfelt playing. "Science Fiction" takes things down a darker, more bittersweet, yet equally rewarding bend. The mysterious "Have We Met Before" is followed by the satisfying album-ending "Here," which closes this excursion into Clearfield's fervid imagination with glorious quiet excitement and surprising directions. This recording is a must for fans of solo piano, but is recommended for anyone who enjoys contemplative music shared with the listener by a talented artist.
Fred Anderson - "Black Horn Long Gone"
The legendary tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson is on a roll, with an incendiary performance at the Chicago Jazz Fest last year and the release of his excellent 21st Century Chase on CD and DVD (see our review here). Now Southport Records has released Black Horn Long Gone (the title comes from a black saxophone he no longer owns which he used on the session) - a direct to digital recording from 1993 of Fred with bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut and drummer Ajaramu (AJ Shelton). Anderson's commitment to improvisation is well known - he is the co-founder of the AACM and someone who has studied the improvisational technique of the great Charlie Parker. The recording - in which Sparrow's vintage Neumann and AKG tube microphones were used - sounds fantastic - and completely captures the interaction of all three players in the studio. The rhythm section is powerful, yet nuanced, but Anderson is clearly the star of the show with his long clear and bold strings of notes issuing forth. Although these sheets of sound are fiery, they also convey Anderson's intelligence and sense of purpose. Improvisation is a way of life for the veteran saxophonist and every note has its place. Many highlights, but I especially dug the galloping "Three on Two" and heartfelt "Bernice." The album ends with Fred's stunning solo "Ode to Clifford Jordan," who would pass away only two months later. Sadly Maghostut and Ajaramu have also passed on, but fortunately this recording will endure as a testament to their talent.
Nick Kadajski's 5 Point Perspective - "Remembering Things to Come"
(Circauision Productions )
This exciting combo virtually leaps out of the speakers on opening track - the jazz/rock fusion "Phantom Energy." Led by alto saxophonist (Alper Yilmaz Project) and featuring an unusual (for jazz) two-guitar, bass and drums lineup. The two guitarists (Ben Cassoria and Sean Moran) give the group much of it's distinctive sound. "Musings on Beethoven" follows and continues the upbeat direction, while "2 is 1" slows things nicely. There is at times a bit of an African/Worldbeat influence - partly due to Kadajski's background playing Afrobeat and with Turkish bassist Yilmaz, the guitarists interlocking fretwork and bassist Brad Maestas drummer Brian Adler's creative timekeeping. Kadajski studied with Ralph Alessi, Tim Berne and Matana Roberts and has an attractive tone on his alto and a knack for writing fresh new tunes. While the energy level seems to subside as the album progresses - ending in fact with a soft lullaby of sorts ("For Steph") - there are several more great tracks include the floating "On the Corner," the rocking "#3" and the delectable "The Ness of Kate." Fine work from this Brooklyn-based ensemble, whom I suspect we will be hearing more from in the future.
Carl Fischer & Organic Groove Ensemble - "Adverse Times"
Trumpeter Carl Fischer (who recently performed at The Joynt in Chicago) is a Maynard Ferguson protege who has since been a member of pop star Billy Joel's band for several years. On Adverse Times, Fischer hits the high notes like his old boss (to whom the CD is dedicated), while covering a couple of his current employer's numbers ("Downeaster Alexa" and "Elegy for the Fisherman"). But Fischer also covers Miles ("Tutu") and his original numbers show a diverse '70s funk and R&B influence. Fischer is assisted by organist/keyboardist Ron "The Octopus" Oswanski - who plays a plethora of notes on an abundance of keyboards (including accordion) while also covering the bass parts. Guitarist Jay Azzolina and saxophonist John Scapulla also add fine solos. "Wienhiem Blues" starts things off energetically with Fischer and Azzolina burning it up over Oswanski's B-3. The title track lightens the groove a bit and brings in an Indian flavor (percussionist Emiliano adds some tasty table), while "Movin' Out and Up" (a play on Joel's "Movin' Out"?) sounds like a Tower of Power number with TOP vocalist Brent Carter offering some smooth vocals. "Kirican Afternoon/ Sonho Medley" is a satisfyingly breezy Brazilian tune. The respectful take on Joel's "Downeaster Alexa" is followed by a slamming funk number - "Open Up" and the cool version of the Miles tune. Carter returns on the breezy "Freeport to Fire Island," while "Flo n Mayn Spirit" was written for Maynard and his wife - both now departed. Fischer isn't trying to reinvent music here, just play some strong and entertaining music the right way. The crowd at The Joynt really dug the live versions of these numbers and although this album doesn't quite capture the live energy, it's not from lack of trying. Solid and full of spirit, this record is an antidote to adverse times - and just try to get this catchy version of "Downeaster Alexa" out of your head - I haven't been able to yet.
Steve Colson - "The Untarnished Dream"
Former Chicagoan - pianist Adegoke Steve Colson's first album since 2004 - The Untarnished Dream is a superb example of modern jazz writing and performing. Mixing post bop with free forms, Colson's compositions are interesting yet quite melodic and his keyboard work is intriguing. On the new release. the veteran pianist is backed by a great tandem in Miles-alum bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille, as well as his wife - singer Iqua Colson - who also provides the excellent lyrics. Despite being one of only a few pianists in the AACM lineup, Colson has flown somewhat under the radar - and that is a true shame, because he is an exceptional player and composer. Iqua also is a compelling singer and lyricist - who adds much to this album. Of course, it is always a pleasure to hear Workman and Cyrille, and this nicely-balanced recording captures the group's sound very well. On the robust opening bop track - "Circumstantial" - Colson plays it straight and hot with Workman supplying a nice bass solo, while the moody "Digression" introduces Iqua and veers into Andrew Hill territory. The lovely "Waltz for Iqua" returns the group to piano trio territory and highlights the exceptional interplay between the members, as well as showcasing Colson's unique voice on the instrument. So many pianists these days have a similar sound - so it such a pleasure to hear one who - although he is clearly aware of the great the tradition - is taking his instrument into new directions.
First recorded back in 1980, "Triumph of the Outcasts Coming" gives Cyrille an opportunity to open the piece with a strong solo, and seems to be the centerpiece of this rewarding album. For someone like Colson, who has been active in the Civil Rights movement and in promoting African-Amercan culture, the election of Barack Obama has to be seen as a triumph - not ignoring the fact that the struggle does continue - and the timing seems right to revisit this excellent composition. Colson's piano work here adroitly presents the battle with his angular avant garde lines leaping across the keys. "Maybe" takes things back into exciting and more-traditional sounding Jazz, while the music swings back into free jazz on "Parallel Universe." This dualism is exhilarating for the listener. The title track wishes beauty to everyone and features a great, albeit irregular melody (perfectly captured by Iqua), "Warriors" is a virile piano solo that clearly shows Colson's masterful command of the piano. The haunting "And it Was Set in Ivory" metamorphoses into a middle-section of improvised shakers, bells and chimes before returning briefly to the vocal/bass/drum and piano theme - ending the album with a heartfelt cry for the plight of the Africans who are victims of war and repression due to the pursuit of their natural resources. A superb release from an important pianist/composer/thinker who deserves a wider audience for his thought-provoking work.
John Funkhouser Trio - "Time"
Another version of Green Dolphin Street? I can hear the groans already, but you will want to give the old chestnut a chance, with pianist John Funkhouser's clever arrangement. Bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors provide an undulating rhythm over which Funkhouser (what a great name for a musician, by the way!) can do his thing. The band takes the song into a swirling maelstrom in the middle section and reminds you of why you loved the going down that "Street" in the first place. "Ellipse" follows and is an awesome polyrhythmic number, with the left hand of the piano in 5/8, the right hand in 7/8 and the bowed bass in 6/8 (the drums play a 35 beat pattern on top of it). This "math experiment" sounds anything but - and proves again that complexity can sound organic. On the rest of this freewheeling album, Funkhouser and band take on Bach ("Fugue in A minor" - down as a Latin piano trio number-- complete with a prelude on cowbell). There is humor inherent in these numbers, as well as political commentary - as in "Dyin' Nation/Emancipation" and "Ode to a Lame Duck" - both of which delightfully celebrate the end of the Bush II regime. But lest you think it is all fun and games, be aware that these cats have some major chops. The odd time signatures continue on the funky (with a swinging B-section) "Eleventy One" (in 11/8) and the sizzling "Ode" (which moves from 13/8 to 7/4 to 9/2) and these guys handle it all seamlessly. Two more covers - waltzing takes on "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Alone Together" - as well as the gently swaying "Kelp" are luminous and prove that these guys can play nice when they want to. The talented Funkhouser - also a bassist of note - is currently a teacher at Berklee and has been heard on over 40 recordings. He has an interest and background in a wide range of musical styles form classical to world music to avant garde to funk and rock - and this sense of wonder and love of a kaleidoscope of musical styles really manifests itself on this admirable release.
Gia Notte - "Shades"
Margie "Gia" Notte showed us a great deal of promise in her debut recording last year - Just You, Just Me & Friends; Live at Cecil's (see our review here). She's back again and again pleasing the ears with her lovely voice, selection of choice numbers from the Great American Songbook and strong supporting cast. Her covers this time are all top notch compositions - including "Caravan," "Speak Low," "My Funny Valentine," "The Look of Love," "Autumn Leaves" and "What'll I Do" among others. Notte's voice is refreshing free of the affectations that afflict many of the current crop of singers and she makes the song itself the focus, rather than the technical abilities of the singer. Not that she doesn't have vocal chops, but her strength is the "shading" of her voice. The same stellar backing band she used on the previous recording - including drummer Cecil Brooks, bassist Tom DiCarlo, pianist Jason Teborek and the acclaimed reedman Don Braden on tenor saxophone and alto and soprano flutes. Additionally, Freddie Hendrix appears on trumpet and flugelhorn, Kahil Kwame Bell on percussion, and pianist Brandon McCune takes the piano chair on four tracks. The strength of these players (with alto saxophonist Guy Notte also on one track) is impressive - with Braden especially and their support of their songbird is laudatory. Gia's voice is warm, honest and smooth is a pleasing way that relaxes the listener without putting them to sleep. Fans of no-frills straight-ahead female vocal jazz will want to pick up a copy of this pleasant release. Now that she has conquered the standards - I'm anxious to hear Notte spread her wings and stretch out some more, but for now I am quite happy to enjoy her fine work and pull for her success.
John Stein - "Raising the Roof"
(Whaling City Sound)
How can the great music of jazz be considered to be dying when I keep being introduced to such great players. One such example is Kansas City-born/Boston (Berklee)-based guitarist John Stein - whose new release Raising the Roof is another international affair - featuring the same quartet as his last Whaling Sound release - 2008's Encounterpoint. The quartet members include Japanese keyboardist Koichi Sato, Brazilian drummer Ze Eduardo Nazario and bassist John Lockwood from South America. Tunes covered include Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," (in a speeded-up version) Bobby Timmons' "Moanin,'" "A Child is Born," "Invitation" and "Falling in Love With Love," and man, do these cats burn on these tunes. Hard to believe these guys all live on different continents since tinges seem so tight, but speaks volumes for the universal nature of jazz. Their version of Thad Jones' "A Child is Born" shows they know a way around a ballad, while Stein's original "Elvin!" gives Nazario the center stage for an interesting solo. Stein knows his way around the fretboard and Sato shows a nice touch on the keyboard. Lockwood has a unique approach on the bass, but keeps things grounded well and adds some tasteful solos. One highlight is the band's take on Jobim's "Viva Sonhado," while the album-ending "Falling in Love with Love" can't help but bring a smile to your face.
Salvatore Bonafede - "Sicilian Opening"(Jazz Eyes)
Not only is award-winning pianist Salvatore Bonafede originally from Sicily, but both of his other trio members - drummer Marcello Pellitteri and bassist Marco Panascia are from that Mediterranean island (both are now located in NYC). Bonafede has played with numerous name acts, including Joe Lovano, Jerry Bergonzi and Enrico Rava. Here he leads his trio through an album of mostly originals that range from New Orleans-influenced (the title track), Spanish-flavored ("La Grande Ilusion"), Arabic-scale-infused ("Appunti us Palermo"), blues-based ("bbbb"), gospel ("Italian Ingegno") and even pop ("It Plays From Far"). The pianist even covers two Beatles tunes - "Blackbird" and a brilliant take on "She's Leaving Home." Despite the wide-ranging elements combined in the compositions, the band is tight, and throughout it all, there is a Mediterranean feeling to the music that helps to hold all these divergent styles together. Pellitteri's drums have pop and Panascia's bass is noticeably chewy. Bonafede reminds a bit of Stefano Bollani, with a European flair inherent, but his performance has a distinctive sound of his own. The band is recorded well and the warm, clear mix makes for pleasant and thoughtful listening. In chess, the Sicilian opening is a popular defensive move made by black (c5) that is considered an aggressive move to gain an advantage. Not a bad description of this imaginative release of engaging piano trio music.
GR Project - "Sculptures in Time"
Eduardo Chillida was a highly acclaimed sculptor who built massive abstract structures that suggest movement through the use of form and space. Guitarist Gabriel Riesco used Chillada's work as the inspiration for his Sculptures in Time. A former student at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Berklee graduate, Riesco also spent several years in Miami and toured with the Miami Dade Big Band. Now settled in NYC, Riesco has put together an outstanding group, including pianist Ray Assaf, saxophonist Nir Naaman, bassist Chris Smith and drummer Colin Stranahan to perform his melodic, yet challenging music. Using a unique fingerpicking playing style - he uses no pick and no fingernails - Riesco creates a warm, yet vigorous sound. He says his compositions explore opposite concepts such as tension and release, beauty and power, sound and silence, and indeed these pieces do fit his description. Songs like the opening "Seul B" shift from quiet reflection to hard-charging on a dime and this crack band navigates through the complex changes with confidence and verve. "Chillida" takes a perfect relaxed pace with moments of space and plenty of opportunities for the players to shine - here it is Assaf who takes a strong solo turn, while drummer Stranahan adds a compellingly subdued drum solo. "Ging Gong" continues this mid-tempo direction, with both Riesco and saxman Naaman excelling at this peaceful pace. But Naaman really impresses on the 10:29 "Ol For" - which picks up the energy and tempo and cuts the reed player loose. But then the song suddenly mutates and becomes slow and clear as a quiet stream with twinkling piano and a languid guitar solo that slowly builds to a climax. Another interesting usage of contrasts in an album full of them. "Airnara" is a fairly straightforward ballad, but with a bitter-sweetness to it, while "Simba's Samba" lives up to it's name - combining a samba beat with African flavor - which continues on "Africa." The beautiful "Todo Claro" ends this album of motion and space on a quiet and satisfying note