Posts filed under 'Jazz'

Brian McCarthy – The Better Angels of Our Nature

Better Angels
Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature

Artist: Brian McCarthy Nonet

Label: Truth Revolution Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: June 13, 2017

 

 

This month sees a new release from Vermont-based saxophonist, composer, and music educator Brian McCarthy that’s scheduled to drop a week before JuneteenthThe Better Angels of Our Nature features McCarthy and his nonet reimagining songs from the Civil War and composing original songs inspired by the conflict.  The project, with its title garnered from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, is both an academic and artistic endeavor. McCarthy explores music from a dark period of American history in an effort to chart new thematic and musical territory. This project was funded in part by a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant and combines McCarthy’s personal interest in history with his masterful interpretation of both familiar and new music.

A project this ambitious demands an ensemble capable of sensitivity and innovation.  McCarthy, a great saxophonist and composer, is joined by pianist Justin Kauflin, tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick, trombonist Cameron MacManus (three former members of trumpeter Clark Terry’s band), trumpeter Bill Mobley, bari player Andrew Gutauskas, saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, drummer Zac Harmon, and bassist Matt Aronoff.  These masterful musicians allow the musical and historical themes implicit in these songs to unfold, their playing simultaneously beautiful and challenging.

Setting up musical and thematic tension among these Civil War-associated tunes is key to McCarthy’s approach to this material.  He directly juxtaposes the Confederate anthem “The Bonnie Blue Flag” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” situates a bluesy attempt to reclaim “Dixie” next to a reading of the spiritual “Oh Freedom.”  Even the original compositions on this album evince a kind of tension—the multi-part title track reads as a character study of Lincoln, contrasting his roles as lawyer, President, and person.

One of the standout features of this album is that there are no standout players. This is a narrative jazz record and each note played by each musician serves McCarthy’s impressionistic reading of the Civil War by exploring its music, an approach that suggests both schism and unity (it is likely no accident, for instance, that some of the Union tunes included on this album were parodied by southerners during the war). It may be too much to try to draw contemporary comparisons to the seemingly intractable divisions in contemporary American social and political life, but McCarthy’s interpretation of seemingly arcane music allows him to deal with some conceptually significant undercurrents in American culture.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review June 2nd, 2017

Jazzmeia Horn – A Social Call

jazzmeia
Title: A Social Call

Artist: Jazzmeia Horn

Label: Prestige

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 12, 2017

 
 

After winning the Theonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015, vocalist Jazzmeia Horn certainly validated the name assigned by her prescient jazz-loving, church musician grandmother. On her stunning debut recording, A Social Call, the Texas-born singer likewise demonstrates a maturity that belies her age, steeped in the spirit of her idols Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, and Abbey Lincoln.  Horn’s familiarity with jazz vocalists and techniques of the 1950s and ‘60s is showcased throughout the album, but this is not a stroll through memory lane by any means. She is equally comfortable with R&B and gospel music, bringing plenty of contemporary influences to her unique interpretations of the classics.

The album takes its title from the song penned by Gigi Gryce in the 1950s for Betty Carter. Horn excels in this conversational style, creating an extremely fast and nimble arrangement with a teasing tone that keeps the rhythm section on their toes (Victor Gould on piano, Ben Williams on bass, and Jerome Jennings on drums). But the title also reflects Horn’s concerns about current events: “These are not good times. This album is a few things—it’s a call to social responsibility, to know your role in your community. It’s about being inspired by things that happen in your life and being able to touch others.”*

Delving into the very roots of black music, Horn uses spirituals as a source of inspiration, reflecting faith, resistance, protest, and resilience. One of the album’s highlights is a 13 minute medley that melds Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Afro Blue” with Horn’s original poem “Eye See You” and the traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water.”  Opening with over three minutes of primal vocalizations based on West African sounds, the track gradually shifts in space and place, taking listeners on a journey from the motherland to an all-too-familiar present day soundscape. Over the wailing of sirens and chanting of protestors, Horn’s intense poetry speaks of “blood on the pavement, brothers on the corner shackled and chained, stopped and frisked.” As she transitions into an emotionally charged rendition of “Wade in the Water,” one can’t help but recall Billie Holiday or even Nina Simone, who could turn any song into social protest.

Another montage blends an unembellished version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the African American national anthem) with the classic Bobby Timmons’ song “Moanin” which shows off Horn’s scatting technique, extensive vocal range and command of different styles. The band also gets a workout, with solos by trumpeter Josh Evans and bassist Ben Williams.

The remainder of the album mixes jazz classics such as Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You” and Betty Carter’s “Tight” with jazz-tinged R&B standards. Particular favorites include Horn’s renditions of “Up Above My Head” (Myron Butler’s arrangement) and the Rose Royce Carwash classic “I’m Going Down” that concludes the album.

One fact is obvious from Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album: this woman can sing! A talent like this doesn’t come along very often, and I can’t wait to hear what the future will bring.

*Quote from Concord press release authored by Ashley Kahn.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review June 2nd, 2017

Preservation Hall Jazz Band – So It Is

PHJB
Title: So It Is

Artist: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Label: Legacy

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: April 21, 2017

 

 

Now in its 56th year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to thrive and regularly record albums. This latest effort is a far cry from the original traditional Dixieland outings, and for that reason it’s likely to resonate with modern audiences.

According to the band’s website, a performing trip to Cuba last year was highly influential toward the writing of this album. Band leader and bass/tuba player Ben Jaffe has integrated Afro-Cuban elements into a New Orleans-style blend of funk and up-tempo jazz. There are still references, here and there, to Dixieland and second-line street jazz, but this version of the PHJB would find a home in the record shelf of a Meters fan as well as his trad-jazz loving elders.

Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, founded Preservation Hall and organized its first namesake bands, in the early 1960s. Back in the early years, via recordings for Atlantic and then Columbia, the band featured aging but still vibrant local stars and other practitioners of the “original” style of jazz. In more recent times, the band embraced New Orleans’ musical evolution and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians and producers, moving its sound toward a modern beat-driven jazz style.

It’s worth noting that this album is the second in a row for the PHJB with all original compositions. No more traditional tunes and covers of beloved oldies. The newness of the material is probably a prime reason the band has successfully transitioned to the all-important festival circuit, often paired with rock and pop acts. This is not music to hear while sitting still in a formal concert hall, but rather get-up-and-dance music to power a good outdoor festival mud roll. It’s more party music than contemplation music.

Although all 7 cuts on the album are worth a few careful listens, the featured single “Santiago” is contagiously raucous, and “Convergence” stands out for its funkiness. On the jazzier side of the band’s capabilities are the title track and “One Hundred Fires.” It’s also worth mentioning Walter Harris’s outstanding drum work throughout. The album is beat-driven, and Harris is a very capable driver.

The downside to the party atmosphere is that the music seems wider at the expense of deeper, but the excellent playing mitigates some of the shallowness. This is gut-feeling jazz, more akin to pop music than concert-hall jazz. Alas, like even the best pop music, it has a somewhat plastic soul. Recommend for listening along with friends and fun.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review June 2nd, 2017

Richard Dowling – The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Joplin
Title: The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Artist: Richard Dowling

Label: Rivermont

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death (and roughly 150 years since his estimated birth date of 1867), pianist Richard Dowling offers this splendid 3-CD box set containing Joplin’s complete piano works—over 50 waltzes, marches and rags. These include all authenticated Joplin compositions as well as those for which he received an arranging credit. The same cycle of works were performed in their entirety by Dowling in two historic concerts at Carnegie Hall on April 1, 1917, exactly 100 years to the day that Joplin died in New York City.

Now widely considered one of America’s most important composers of the late 19th – early 20th century, Joplin’s first solo piano works were published in 1896. His earliest piano rags, including “Original Rag” and the iconic “Maple Leaf Rag,” were printed three years later. This, of course, was the genre that made Joplin famous and cemented his place in history as “The King of Ragtime,” while ragtime’s distinctly African American syncopated rhythms formed the foundation of jazz.  Joplin’s career reached its peak from 1908-1914, culminating in the completion of his opera Treemonisha and his most innovative ragtime compositions, including “Fig Leaf” (1908), “Wall Street Rag” (1909), “Euphonic Sounds” (1909) and “Magnetic Rag” (1914). Sadly, Joplin died three years later at age 49—without realizing his plans for a symphony, piano concerto, or the staging of his opera—and nearly forgotten since ragtime music had been overtaken by jazz. Even more tragic from an archival perspective, there are no surviving letters or other personal papers.

Richard Dowling has made a career of interpreting the works of American composers, from Louis Gottschalk and George Gershwin to Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. Three of his previous CDs are devoted to ragtime music. As an official Steinway Artist, Dowling’s instrument of choice for The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin was a Hamburg Steinway concert grand. While one might argue this is surely a much finer instrument than any available to Joplin in his lifetime and thus is not a “period instrument,” it certainly speaks to Joplin’s desire for his works to be considered and performed as “higher class music,” and one can’t deny the magnificence of the piano’s tone and the richness of the recording. In all other matters, Dowling states that he followed Joplin’s performance instructions to the letter: “[my rags were] harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as written…to complete the sense intended.” To that end, he recorded Joplin’s works “without adding embellishments or improvisations as is often done … carefully observing his phrasing, voice leading, placement of rests, use of ties, articulations, and dynamics.”

Dowling approaches each work with incredible sensitivity and scholarly intent. Noting that “Joplin’s piano music sings like that of Chopin,” he definitely strives for this effect. His carefully chosen tempos, magisterial tone color, delicate phrasing, and subtle dynamics bring out the sophistication and beauty of each composition. I particularly enjoyed listening to each of Dowling’s stated favorites, including ““The Crush Collision March” and “Antoinette” (for their drama), “Sugar Cane” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” (for their sheer virtuosity).”

Dowling and musicologist Bryan S. Wright, who served as co-producer and recording engineer, eschewed the standard chronological programming order in favor of creating a more harmonious musical flow. They succeed brilliantly, and an alphabetical index allows listeners to quickly locate any work among the 54 tracks. Wright also composed the liner notes for the accompanying 72 page booklet, offering tremendous insight with his analysis of each composition, pointing out Joplin’s penchant for striking key changes and innovative modulations. Also included are full color illustrations of the original sheet music covers.

Though there are many recordings of Joplin’s piano works, including the landmark interpretations by Joshua Rifkin who was at the forefront of the Joplin revival in the 1970s, Richard Dowling’s The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin is highly recommended for its superb sound, excellent packaging and, last but certainly not least, his carefully articulated, virtuosic performance.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

View review June 2nd, 2017

Wes Montgomery – Smokin’ in Seattle

Smokin
Title: Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse

Artist: Wes Montgomery

Label: Resonance

Formats: CD, Limited Edition LP, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

This is Resonance Records’ fourth CD release of classic performances by Wes Montgomery, clearly making this label one of the major documenters of Wes’s remarkable career. The first three releases capture Wes’s earliest days performing in Indianapolis and as a leader and member of other small groups.  Smokin’ in Seattle captures his final recorded performance with the Wynton Kelley Trio in a club setting in Seattle two years before his early death. Every follower of Wes’s career must own these four releases.

Wes Montgomery’s earliest recorded appearances were captured when he was a member of Lionel Hampton’s Orchestra, including his first broadcasts in 1948 and continuing on studio recordings released by Decca continuing through early 1950. Resonance Records has played a major role in extending Montgomery’s early recorded legacy with its previous releases, In the Beginning (including the separately issued LP titled Live at the Turf Club), Echoes of Indiana Avenue, and One Night in Indy. The former couples an overlooked Montgomery Brothers session for Columbia Records in 1955 with live performances at the Turf Club in Indianapolis captured in August 1956. The second adds other live recordings from clubs in Indianapolis in 1957-1958, while the latter adds a performance before members of the Indianapolis Jazz Club in 1959.  Wes lived in Indianapolis and was known to local jazz fans, explaining the location of most of these recordings.

Wes’s national reputation began to develop when Pacific Jazz and World Pacific released recordings by the Montgomery Brothers in 1957 through 1959; however, Wes’s career skyrocketed with his move to Riverside Records in October 1959 following the release of his third and classic album for that label, The Incredible Jazz Guitar in January 1960. Almost immediately, guitarists began to flock to clubs to observe Wes and to study his unique style of playing in octaves.  Resonance Records’ third Montgomery CD, One Night in Indy, dates from just months before the start of Wes’s Riverside recordings. All of these Resonance CDs were previously reviewed in Black Grooves.

Wes moved to Verve Records in 1964, capitalizing on his growing fame, and toured Europe in 1965 where a number of bootleg recordings capture his performances on television and in various concert and club settings with small groups. Verve captured his first recording with the Wynton Kelly Trio in an exciting performance in June 1965 at the Half Note; however, Verve increasingly focused on Wes performing as featured soloist with large jazz orchestras and emphasizing more ‘popular’ songs to broaden the sales of his releases. This ultimately led to the final phase of Wes’s career, when he moved to Herb Alpert’s A&M Records.  While these became ‘pop’ recordings, Wes never lost the unique elements of his style.

The latest release from Resonance is Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse, which again features Wes with the Wynton Kelly Trio, is taken from a live FM radio broadcast during a club engagement in Seattle on April 14 and 21, 1966. This places the recording six months after the Montgomery-Kelly Verve release. Other recordings of this notable pairing have appeared, featuring them in 1965; however, Resonance captures their final recorded encounter.  The CD, while clear and well-recorded, is not quite up to the standard of top studio quality sound in capturing the sound of Wes’s guitar; however, the overall quality of the performances more than compensate for this slight imperfection. The musicians complement one another throughout, and Wes performs with gusto. Truly, with this release, Resonance Records has made another notable contribution to the jazz legacy of Wes Montgomery. Jazz fans throughout the world should celebrate.

The CD features the Wynton Kelley Trio (Wynton Kelly on piano, Ron McClure on bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums) on four of the performances, adding Wes as the featured artist on six others. Unfortunately two of those six are faded out due to union-imposed restrictions on the length of live broadcasts from clubs. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy.

Wes and Wynton had recorded together several times, beginning with a Riverside session led by vibraphonist Milt Jackson in 1961.  Among the included songs, Wes had previously recorded “Jingles” during the Riverside session with Jackson and “What’s New” and “If You Could See Me Now” with the Wynton Kelly Trio released in their album on Verve. “West Coast Blues,” Wes’s original composition, was a staple in his repertoire, including its first appearance on The Incredible Jazz Guitar.

It is important to point out that the Jobim tune listed on the disc is identified as “O Morro Nao Tem Vez,” while to my ear it is actually “O Amor em Paz (Once I Loved).”  This is but a small distraction and in no way detracts from the care taking to assemble a wonderful release that includes interviews with several musicians and others with connections to the production and original session.

Contents (* features Montgomery on guitar): There Is No Greater Love (7:56) — Not a Tear (6:29) — *Jingles (4:31) — *What’s New (4:51) — *Blues in F (2:44) — Sir John (8:10) — If You Could See Me Now (5:54) — *West Coast Blues (3:56) — *O Morro Não Tem Vez (6:15)  (see note in above paragraph) — *Oleo (2:08).

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad

Author of Born to Play: The Ruby Braff Discography and Directory of Performances

View review June 1st, 2017

Terence Blanchard – The Comedian OST

TerenceBlanchard_TheComedian
Title: The Comedian (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Artist: Terence Blanchard

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

Terence Blanchard is a name you are probably familiar with, even if you’re not a jazz person.  Apart of the scene for quite some time, Blanchard replaced his fellow New Orleans mate, Wynton Marsalis, in Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. Before Blakey, Blanchard made his bones with the great Lionel Hampton.  Now, if you are still in the dark and the name just don’t ring a chime, Blanchard is perhaps best known for his collaborations with filmmaker Spike Lee. Together, they have become quite a tandem, with Blanchard scoring many of Lee’s films including Summer of Sam, Clockers, Miracle at St. Anna, Mo Better Blues, When The Levee Breaks, Jungle Fever, X and Chi-Raq. Blanchard has also worked with other filmmakers, including Kasi Lemmon. With over forty film scores to his credit he’s one of the most productive jazz musicians ever.

Most recently, Blanchard composed the score for the 2016 motion picture The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro. On the original soundtrack album, the multi Grammy winning composer gives his audience eight tracks of hard bop featuring Kenny Barron on piano, David Pulphus on bass, Carl Allen on drums, Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax and Khari Allen on alto sax.

The album starts off with “Jackie in the Rain,” which could be mistaken for the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Yes, it has a very identical sound, but hip and catchy. Maybe it’s Kenny Barron on piano that makes it sound like a scene from Charlie Brown. Please don’t be offended

All the tracks have cool titles. “Electricity On MacDougal” features bass playing at very rapid speed by David Pulphus, but Blanchard stays with him, note for note. Almost as if he was toying with him. Yes! “Tit For Tat Nocturne” is mellow 10pm cocktail jazz. Again Kenny Barron on piano shines bright. The band members all get their shine on The Comedian.  After all, that’s what jazz is all about.

Terence Blanchard’s score for The Comedian is nothing to laugh at. It better be taken serious, by a serious trumpet player in the game.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman   

 

View review June 1st, 2017

Trombone Shorty – Parking Lot Symphony

Trombone Shorty
Title: Parking Lot Symphony

Artist: Trombone Shorty

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: April 28, 2017

 

The final Friday of April saw a new and compelling release by the acclaimed New Orleans trombonist, singer, and bandleader Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty). This is the band’s fourth album, and their first on the heralded Blue Note label.

Trombone Shorty and his band blend elements from pop, R&B, funk, and jazz, and the group leans heavily on its roots in the New Orleans versions of these styles on Parking Lot Symphony. Stylistic diversity is the name of the game on this album, among both the songs that gesture more towards pop styles and those incorporating hardcore jazz and funk grooves.   “Parking Lot Symphony” and “Dirty Water” both hearken to 90s R&B, and are driven by drum machines and infectious hooks. The band included two quite faithful covers of songs by New Orleans legends in this set: The Meters’ “Ain’t No Use” and the Allen Toussaint-penned “Here Come the Girls.” Many originals follow the sterling legacy of New Orleans music as well—“Tripped Out Slim” is a funk barn-burner, and the album is bookended by a set of brass band dirges, titled “Leveau Dirge No. 1” and “Leveau Dirge Finale.”

As might be expected from an album that ambitiously incorporates pop sensibilities and funk-jazz roots, this record has a few swings and misses like “Familiar,” a club jam about barely recognizing someone (even this song, though, has a killer Rhodes and brass solo section). However, this rare misstep is tempered by the band’s overwhelming sense of earnestness on the rest of the album. For instance, “No Good Time,” has its heart firmly planted on its sleeve. Shorty croons the folksy wisdom that “nobody never learned nothing from no good time” on the melancholy brass-driven ballad. While the set may not be entirely cohesive, it is chock full of great grooves played by a killer band. Parking Lot Symphony is a well-executed effort from a group of steadily grooving musicians.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review May 2nd, 2017

Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) – Ancient Africa

Abdullah Ibrahim
Title: Ancient Africa

Artist: Abdullah Ibrahim

Label: Sackville/Delmark

Format: CD

Release Date: March 17, 2017

 

In a 1990 interview, Abdullah Ibrahim stated, “I used to use very eloquent language. Then I realized that hardly anyone understood what I said.” When I first heard the track “Cherry/Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro” from Sangoma (the 1973 vinyl predecessor to this CD) on WAIF radio in Cincinnati about 1977, I certainly felt like it was communicating to me. I was a teen-aged, wannabe classical composer that loved to improvise at the piano, and I was having difficulty with balancing the immediacy of improvisation with preparing written scores which would allow for that freedom. On Sangoma—issued initially under Ibrahim’s former moniker, Dollar Brand—Ibrahim made it clear that you could make big, ambitious, para-classical statements in improvisation alone. What made it different from Cecil Taylor was that Cecil was always ahead of the audience, constantly shifting the thread of his argument from subject to subject, whereas with Ibrahim there was always a sense of moving forward in a kind of continuum, often governed by an ostinato pattern, such as in the early, minimalistic music of Terry Riley.

There was a lot in Ibrahim, however, that was not like Riley. The title track “Ancient Africa” thunders forward with breathtaking intensity and power, whereas the following track “The Aloe and the Wild Rose” begins with blasted fragments of figures that settle, over time, into a distinctly Ellingtonian structure not unlike the Duke’s “The Clothed Woman.”

“Cherry/Bra Joe” was not originally included on Sangoma. Though recorded on the same day, it appeared on a different Sackville album, African Portraits. The first Ancient Africa issued as an album was the initial CD version of this from 1994, now long unavailable. This 2017 edition adds an unreleased track, “Khotso,” mainly a flute solo with some spoken narration. It illustrates some aspects of Ibrahim’s creative thinking, and would’ve been welcome on WAIF radio back in the ‘70s—though one understands why this was held back, given the limitations of album sides and that the rest of this session (“Thunder Sound, Toronto 1973-02-18”) was devoted to piano only.

The next step that Ibrahim would take was pretty far from the rarefied world of Ancient Africa; in 1974, he recorded Mannenberg with a small group in Cape Town, contributing a rallying cry to the struggle against Apartheid and laying the foundation for what became known as Cape Jazz. Nevertheless, the material on Ancient Africa is well worth knowing, both as Ibrahim’s final statements—in that time—in the field of long form, avant-garde solo piano improvisation and to experience the “very eloquent language” that Ibrahim mastered, but was compelled to leave behind.

Reviewed by Uncle Dave Lewis

View review May 2nd, 2017

Jeff Lorber Fusion – Prototype

Jeff Lorber Fusion
Title: Prototype

Artist: Jeff Lorber Fusion

Label: Shanachie

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: March 24, 2017

 

Jeff Lorber is generally considered jazz fusion, not smooth jazz. I don’t have the time or space to debate that pressing issue, but whatever you want to label it, Lorber has carved out a pretty good niche for himself. Lorber, who grew up in Cheltenham, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, just released his latest project, Prototype, with his group Jeff Lorber Fusion: Lorber on keyboards, with saxophonist Andy Snitzer (also from Cheltenham), bassist Jimmy Haslip (founding member of The Yellowjackets) and drummer Gary Novak. Special guests include bassist Nathan East, guitarists Chuck Loeb, Larry Koonse, Michael Thompson and Paul Jackson, Jr., and saxophonist Dave Mann. It’s vintage Lorber, which means a ‘real jazz ‘ fan may frown due to the infusion of multiple genres: rock, soul, funk, blues, pop, R&B and gospel.

Stand outs, such as the title track featuring Andy Snitzer on alto sax, make this album a worthwhile listen. On “Testdrive,” which begins with a Steely Dan sound, I was anticipating Donald Fagan any second on vocals. No Fagan, but Andy Snitzer on alto sax again comes to the rescue. “What’s the Deal” is a more upbeat Tower of Power inspired track, with the flow really changing and creating a different sound for Lorber, who switches to B3. The closer, “River Song,” starts off like the theme for a sappy ‘80s sitcom, but give Lorber credit. Just when you think you have the answer, he changes the question.

Yes, Prototype is smooth jazz. Jeff Lorber stays in his lane and apparently, he has it all to himself.

Eddie Bowman

View review May 2nd, 2017

Regina Carter – Ella: Accentuate the Positive

Regina Carter
Title: Ella: Accentuate the Positive

Artist: Regina Carter

Label: Okeh/Sony Masterworks

Format: CD, MP3

Release Date: April 21, 2017

 

Jazz violinist Regina Carter’s newest album, Ella: Accentuate the Positive, is an ode to the music of Ella Fitzgerald in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the singer’s birth.  Featuring nine arrangements of Fitzgerald’s songs, this album puts Carter’s imagination on full display.  This is not her first foray into Fitzgerald’s catalog, having recorded both “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on previous albums.  For this project, though, Carter goes deeper into Fitzgerald’s music, recording not only her well known tunes but also some lesser known songs, such as “Judy” and “I’ll Never Be Free.”

Carter’s technique is flawless throughout the album, but highlights include her wide vibrato on “All My Life,” as well as her blues slides on “I’ll Chase the Blues Away.” One of the best takes on Ella’s work is on “I’ll Never Be Free.” Carter’s version becomes a gospel blues song, but the tone of her instrument still holds onto and exemplifies the clarity of Fitzgerald’s voice.  In this way, Carter’s arrangements evoke a variety of genres, including jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B, to name a few. Two of the tracks on the album feature vocalists Miche Braden and Carla Cook, and  Carter’s interaction with them, particularly on “Undecided,” is impressive. Other collaborators on the album include bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett, pianist Xavier Davis and guitarist Marvin Sewell.

Carter has a long history of drawing on influences in her personal life for her music. I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006) features her mother’s favorite jazz standards, whereas in Southern Comfort (2014) she traces and interprets her own heritage through music.  In Ella, Carter reimagines Fitzgerald’s catalog, retaining her spirit but giving her listeners a fresh take on old classics.  The result is a stunning combination of range, with Carter expanding on the depth and creativity already so present in Fitzgerald’s work.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review April 4th, 2017

Patrice Williamson and Jon Wheatley – Comes Love: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass

Comes Love
Title: Comes Love: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass

Artist: Patrice Williamson and Jon Wheatley

Label: Riverlilly

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: April 25, 2017

 

Boston educator and vocalist Patrice Williamson’s new release, Comes Love, is one of many projects celebrating the 100th birthday of Ella Fitzgerald on April 25, 2017. The album, which pays tribute to the distinguished duo of Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, draws on 12 timeless standards that allow Williamson to craft “a narrative arc that reflects a woman’s journey from loneliness to love, and from lost love back to resilience and joy.” She’s accompanied by guitarist Jon Wheatley, her colleague at the Berklee College of Music and author of the book, Jazz Swing Guitar (Berklee Press, 2016).

Fitzgerald and Pass made six albums together, and the songs selected by Williamson were all drawn from their recorded repertoire. Opening with Toots Thielemans’ “Bluesette,” Williamson and Wheatley provide a breezy, atmospheric reading, with Williamson overdubbing a flute solo in the chorus. Williamson’s light, supple voice is ideally suited for songs such as Ellington’s “Take Love Easy,” Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You,” and Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” where she easily negotiates the chromatics. The album concludes on a positive note, so to speak, with “One Note Samba.” The song offers a delightful change of pace and demonstrates Williamson’s scatting technique, while the interplay between her flute and Wheatley’s guitar adds just the right nuance to this bossa nova standard.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review April 4th, 2017

Akua Dixon – Akua’s Dance

Akua Dixon
Title: Akua’s Dance

Artist: Akua Dixon

Label: Akua’s Music

Format: MP3

Release date: February 7, 2017

 

Jazz cellist, arranger, and composer Akua Dixon’s latest project, Akua’s Dance, is an album that does an excellent job of displaying her range as a musician. Dixon has enjoyed a varied career, from playing in the Apollo Theater pit band to arranging strings for Lauryn Hill to serving as the director of new music for jazz violinist Noel Pointer’s ensemble String Reunion.  She is also well known for her collaborations with her sister, the late violinist Gayle Dixon—the two were in Quartette Indigo with fellow musicians Maxine Roach and John Blake, Jr.  As far as the musicians featured on Akua’s Dance, this project is a departure from the string quartet and other string centered ensembles that Dixon has worked with in the past.  Instead, this album features guitarists Freddie Bryant and Russell Malone, bassists Kenny Davis and Ron Lewis, and drummer Victor Lewis.

Highlights from the album include “Afrika! Afrika!” and “Orion’s Gait,” with these being the two songs where Dixon shines most brightly. She varies her technique depending on the mood she wants to evoke, going from a lilting, singing, tone in one moment to a crisp technique the next.  Also particularly impressive is Dixon’s use of range throughout the album, continually bringing the cello to new heights.  She even steps forward as a vocalist in “Throw it Away,” adding her voice to the rich ensemble.  In addition to offering her own voice as an instrument, Dixon also switches between the cello and the bass violin on this album.  The bass (or baritone) violin offers a more full bodied sound than the cello, particularly on “I Dream a Dream.”

On this album, Dixon utilizes tools and techniques from various traditions, from jazz to spirituals. As Dixon’s third solo album, it is quite the departure from her earlier work (including her 2015 self-titled release), but still shows the same dedication to the craft as a musician, composer, arranger, and all around artist.

Reviewed by Allie Martin

View review April 4th, 2017

Kevin Eubanks – East West Time Line

Eubanks
Title: East West Time Line

Artist: Kevin Eubanks

Label: Mack Avenue

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: April 7, 2017

 

 

East West Time Line is the latest release from the extraordinary jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks.  While Eubanks is perhaps most famous as Jay Leno’s bandleader, he has maintained a celebrated career performing with a host of premier jazz musicians, both touring and making a spate of excellent studio recordings. On East West Time Line, the Philadelphia native enlists a band from each coast, featuring East Coasters Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums), Dave Holland (bass), Orrin Evans (keyboard), and Nicholas Payton (trumpet).  The record’s West Coast counterparts consist of Marvin “Smitty” Smith (drums), Rene Camacho (bass), Mino Cinelu (percussion), and Bill Pierce (saxophone).

While employing two different groups on this release, ultimately Eubanks has crafted an album that may be most notable for its sonic unity.  Without knowing the instrumentation for each tune, it is difficult to distinguish which of the tracks might feature the “East Coast” group versus those the “West Coast” band plays on.  The typical stylistic distinctions that one might think of as representing the jazz of each coast (East Coast musicians playing hard-driving straight ahead bop and West Coast musicians taking a cooler, more academic approach) collapse, leaving what one would expect from a musician of Eubanks’s caliber and notoriety—moments of musical virtuosity tempered with tasteful, relaxed balladry.

The band moves fluidly from style to style on this 10-track album, digging deep into a funky Latin groove on their reading of Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane,” playing amorphous time and harmony on “Water Colors,” and bringing out a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” that falls somewhere between early Miles and late night Muzak. As a guitar player, Eubanks’s strength lies in his unique approach to fingerstyle guitar playing, showcased on several tracks but perhaps best exemplified by his dizzying chord-octave-chord solo on “Time Line,” a number sure to send jazz guitarists straight to the woodshed:

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Another highlight of the record is the West Coast band’s reading of “My One and Only Love”— Eubanks’s sophisticated chord-melody intro, masterfully-phrased solo and Pierce’s delicate treatment of the song’s melody may place this track into the running for a definitive reading of the tune.

Overall, Eubanks and his two ensembles have compiled a tight set of well-arranged and expertly played tunes.  It would be great to have a full set with each ensemble in the future.  Jazz fans should certainly hope Eubanks will expand on this project in years to come.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review April 4th, 2017

Soul Science Lab – Plan for Paradise

Plan for Paradise
Title: Plan for Paradise

Artist: Soul Science Lab

Label: self-release

Formats: CD (Collector’s edition), Digital

Release date: October 28, 2016

 

 

October 2016 saw a strong release by the eclectic hip hop duo Soul Science Lab, a rap group that proclaims itself as “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots” on the mbira-driven first track of Plan for Paradise. This appears to be an accurate description of the music that artist and musician Chen Lo and multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Asante’ Amin create.  The duo’s songs are compelling and innovative, indicative of the group’s sprawling vision and overall high artistic standards.

At first listen, the offbeat and hip sensibility of Plan for Paradise will likely remind listeners of work by De La Soul or A Tribe Called Quest.  Like these earlier pioneers, Soul Science Lab’s soundscapes are heavily influenced by jazz and other musics of the African Diaspora.  However, SSL’s music is not simply a throwback to the heyday of the Native Tongues collective.  Stylistically, the music broadens out to a variety of other genres, such as the gospel shout on “Gimme That,” hard rock on “Built My City,” Spanish guitar on “Kingmaker,” and electro funk on “Spend Some Time.”

Lyrically, SSL addresses everything from their Afrofuturistic artistic vision to spiritual themes (“Supernatural”) to contemporary social issues (“I Can’t Breathe”), the latter with a rare poignancy in an age full of attempts at political music. The lyrics on Plan for Paradise, while appearing aspirational on many tracks, demonstrate a deeper understanding of the underlying themes.  That is to say, the political songs aren’t political because it is fashionable to address current events—rather, they suggest the artists’ abiding concerns and nuanced understanding of the issues at hand.

Overall, Plan for Paradise is a great listen from a group whose members boast an impressive resume, both due to their collaborations with other artists and in their work with arts education (detailed on the group’s website).  Listeners can hope that this is the first in a long line of innovative.Afrofuturistic albums.

Note: The album cover uses the Augmented Reality technology of Blippar to create an interactive experience, as demonstrated in this video.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review April 4th, 2017

Miles Mosley – Uprising

Miles Mosley
Title: Uprising

Artist: Miles Mosley

Label: World Galaxy / Alpha Pup

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: January 27, 2017

 

When press releases surrounding Miles Mosley’s latest project were circulated last fall, little did we know just how strongly an album built around the theme “uprising” would resonate. By the time the album dropped last week, the country was embroiled in protests that show no sign of abating. Now Mosley’s concept for Uprising seems downright prescient:

The word “uprising” is often used in moments in which a group of people witness their strength in numbers and band together to seize an opportunity. This embodies the time we are currently living in, where people all over the world in art and politics are recognizing their own power in numbers. It is prophetic as it deals with the different tenants of survival within a world of mystery and ambivalence. From brotherly love to the dangers of good intentions, these are all universal occurrences to which we all seek advice.

If the album’s theme is not enough to draw you in, the music is a powerful hook. Mosley composed the music and also contributes lead vocals and his virtuosity on the upright bass. He’s backed by a soul stew otherwise known as the West Coast Get Down: Kamasi Washington and the late Zane Musa on saxophone, Dontae Winslow on trumpet, Ryan Porter on trombone, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Greaves on piano, and drummer Tony Austin. Completing the aural tapestry, a full orchestra and choir are added to several of the tracks.

On Uprising, the WCGD collective fulfills another mission: “to defy genre and combine musical influences to make jazz dangerous and exciting again, while paying tribute to the legends before them.” Some of these legends include Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, whose Southern soul and psychedelic rock are synthesized with jazz on nearly every track, along with message songs reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.

The album kicks off with “Young Lion,” a fabulously funky song espousing the attributes of a young, woke man with Mosley singing, “set me free, let me run . . .I’m so on fire, look what I’ve become, I’m high, high, higher.” The track also demonstrates Mosley’s incredible bass technique, as the track closes in a fury of distorted riffs that might fool you into thinking he switched up his bass with electric guitar. This is followed by “Abraham,” a song framed with biblical references that begins peacefully with a keyboard backed intro. As Mosley concludes the first verse, “I’m scared, mediocrity is everywhere, but not here!,” the band explodes into action—proving that mediocrity will never fly with this renown ensemble.

In a recent LA Weekly interview, Mosley says he wanted to include “heart-wrenching songs of loss and disappointment,” but also “a soundtrack for this crazy time that people can lean on.” Many of the tracks embody these feelings of disillusionment; however, they never fail to inspire. The reverb soaked anthem “L.A. Won’t Bring You Down” seeks to embolden young artists to hold their own in the City of Angels, cheering them on with a shouting soul chorus, punchy horn section, and liberal applications of the wah wah pedal on the bass. This flows naturally into the emotional ballad “More Than This,” which starts off in a slow groove, then explodes in a powerful flurry of fuzzed up bass as Mosley shouts, “I was promised, maybe the whole world was promised, so much more than this!” Other stand out tracks include “Your Only Cover” and “Reap a Soul”—the latter a bit reminiscent of The Wiz in its “get on down the road” theme. In fact, both songs have lush orchestrations and a ‘70s era Broadway quality. The album concludes with “Fire,” a celebratory tune with Latin rhythms and full string section that will definitely get everyone on their feet, clamoring for an encore.

All of these tracks were recorded in 2012, at the same month-long session that gave birth to Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, and Cameron Grave’s Planetary Prince (though his tracks were eventually re-recorded). Now it is Mosley’s turn in the spotlight, and that light shines like a solar flare. With Uprising, Miles Mosley takes a huge dose of soul and funk, fuses it with astonishing bass technique enhanced with crazy special effects, and tops it off with empowering lyrics and vocals. This album will no doubt be one of the highlights of 2017!

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Noah Preminger – Meditations on Freedom

Noah Preminger
Title: Meditations on Freedom

Artist: Noah Preminger

Label: Independent Release

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

Inauguration day saw a new release from the prolific jazz saxophonist Noah Preminger, aptly entitled Meditations on Freedom. Many Americans have felt confused, afraid, and uncertain in the past few months and Preminger’s newest release channels these sentiments into meditative and provocative music. Composing original tunes and bringing several carefully chosen covers into the studio within weeks of the 2016 U.S. elections, Preminger and company recorded primarily from sketches, eschewing elaborate and polished arrangements for sounds that could touch the still raw nerves of his listeners. The unvarnished sense of the present on this record is heightened by the fact that each of these tracks was recorded live and released with no edits, lending the album the kind of immediacy that a listener may experience at a live set while allowing the musicians to act and react rather than scrubbing the record clean of potentially broken or missed notes. This technique gives this set of tunes a sense of urgency, one that is made even more stark by Preminger’s ensemble choice of a quartet that features no chording instrument, relying solely on melodic counterpoint for harmony. Featuring Preminger on saxophone, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass, and Ian Froman on drums, the group’s minimalistic approach ensures that every note counts, as it must with this ensemble and this material.

As the musical and technical choices set this album’s mood, Preminger’s selection of material provides the bulk of the political and social commentary. It is, of course, hard to convey specific social or political statements through instrumental jazz, an abstract medium generally unsuited to convey semantic meaning except through association or allusion.  Many artists try to solve this problem with sweeping titles that appear to convey something that the sound therein cannot.  Preminger’s solution to this problem is to intersperse his original tunes (complete with provocative titles like “We Have a Dream,” “Women’s March,” and “The 99 Percent”) with renditions of familiar socially-conscious numbers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the way this group approaches its material is that Preminger and his quartet play the most familiar tunes in the set in a way that makes them seem to unravel as they progress. It would be easy (perhaps even lazy) to note that the quartet’s treatment of these tunes sees them dissipate as it seems that civil society is doing. What actually appears to be happening on these tracks, however, is more sophisticated: what makes these renditions especially salient is not that they actually fall apart, but that they clearly have the potential to. We can hear signature melodies on each of these songs before they morph into nearly unrecognizable improvisation over unfamiliar changes. They usually return to the familiar bits, but in a way that requires the listener to check the liner notes to make sure it’s still the same song.

The first two tracks are covers of songs that address racism in the United States head on: Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (which can be heard below) and Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way it Is.” The band performs musical operations on these otherwise familiar tunes—we can recognize the songs in a way but they seem a bit off, almost as though they are being heard underwater. Dylan’s meandering vocal melody appears while the chords under it move in unexpected ways; the signature piano intro on the Hornsby tune is played by the horns before the quartet departs in a different direction than Hornsby could likely have imagined. It appears that Preminger meditates on freedom by pondering the perilous position of hard-won liberties—a house of cards that, like these songs, could easily fall apart with one wrong move. This thesis is supported by the tenuous feeling throughout the record—even the original tunes are not readily hummable, but melodically evanescent. The album feels transient, listening to it an absorbing meditation which is gone as soon as the final seconds tick off of the last track.

With Meditations on Freedom, Preminger and company have released an immediate artistic statement that packs quite a punch in a time that may be optimistically characterized as uncertain. Any flaws that may be found in the album’s one-and-done production style mirror the flaws that Preminger and company appear to highlight in democracy itself, full of promise but ultimately ambiguous in result. There are no shout choruses, no moments of divine Charlie Parker transcendence, but instead a preponderance of more muted soul-searching.

It is critical to note that this record does not end on a bright note—a fairly sunny reading of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” is followed by an original, “Broken Treaties,” that reads as a lament for all of the hard fought battles that may have now been lost. Preminger’s music will likely not inspire revolution; rather it seems to grieve a failed one. Even the album’s gorgeous version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is tinged with loss—sure, a change is gonna come, but will it be a good one?  It is difficult to interpret many of these numbers as seeing the glass half-full, and that may be precisely the point.

The most challenging part of Meditations on Freedom is its clearly articulated and profound sense of loss. Preminger and company’s skill at articulating this in a musically cogent way is what ultimately makes this album both so good and such a downer.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review February 1st, 2017

Randy Weston African Rhythms – The African Nubian Suite

Randy Weston
Title: The African Nubian Suite

Artist: Randy Weston African Rhythms

Label: African Rhythms

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3

Release date: January 20, 2017

 

Released just in time for Black History Month, jazz elder Randy Weston’s epic work, The African Nubian Suite, traces the history of the human race through music, with a narration by inspirational speaker Wayne B. Chandler, and introductions and stories by Weston in his role as griot. This recording captures a live performance at New York University by the Institute of African American Affairs on Easter Sunday, 2012, and indeed possesses a sermonic quality. Stressing the unity of humankind, Weston incorporates music that “stretches across millennia”—from the Nubian region along the Nile Delta, to the holy city of Touba in Senegal, to China’s Shang Dynasty, as well as African folk music and African American blues.

Each movement of the suite involves different musicians, who enter a circle in order to “tell stories.” The opening tracks lay out the story of “Ardi” (Ardipithecus ramidus), referencing the oldest known remains of a human-like female hominid who lived in Nubia over 4.4 million years ago. Disc one features Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet (“The Call”), Howard Lewis Johnson on tuba (“Ardi”), Moroccan musician Lhoussine Bouhamidy on gnawa (“Sidi Bilal”), Gambian musician Salieu Suso on kora with T.K. Blue on flute (“Spirit of Touba”), Min Xiao-Fen on pipa (“The Shang”), and Martin Kwaakye Obeng on the Ghanaian balafon (“Children Song”), all accompanied by Weston on piano.

Disc two traces the development of the blues, “from its origins in the Niger Delta to its transmutation in the Mississippi Delta.” Weston ponders the roots of the blues in his introduction before launching into “Blues for Tricky Sam,” featuring a solo by Robert Trowers on trombone in a tribute to the bluesy nature of Duke Ellington’s horn section. “Cleanhead Blues” is a tribute to Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, performed here by Weston and Billy Harper on tenor sax. Weston then heads further south to Central America, drawing from his own Panamanian roots on “Nanapa Panama Blues” with Alex Blake on bass.

After a poignant monologue by Chandler on “The Woman”—the basis of all creation—Weston launches into a song by the same title featured poet Jayne Cortez, which is definitely one of the highlights of this set. The two-part movement “The African Family” introduces African percussion with drummer Lewis Nash and percussionists Neil Clarke and Ayanda Clarke, followed by the “battle of the saxophones” between T.K. Blue and Billy Harper. The project concludes with “Love, The Mystery Of,” bringing the jazz musicians together in a short instrumental penned by Guy Warren.

In these troubling times when our nation is divided by politics, race and religion, Weston uses The African Nubian Suite as a vehicle to remind us of our common heritage: “We all come from the same place – we all come from Africa.” As eloquently stated by Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes: “There are no superior or inferior races, no hierarchies of culture, no barbarians at the gate. Instead, Africa—its music, land, people, spirituality—tie us all together as a planet.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

View review February 1st, 2017

Corey Henry – Lapeitah

Corey Henry
Title: Lapeitah

Artist: Corey Henry

Label: Louisiana Red Hot Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 6, 2016

 

Corey Henry was raised in the birthplace of jazz—New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood. Inspired by his environment and musical family, Henry started learning trombone at the age of 10, and by age 16 he was hired to play with the Treme Brass Band. Since then, he’s become a vital part of the New Orleans jazz scene, performing with his Little Rascals Brass Band and the nationally touring jam band Galactic. Last September, Henry released his solo debut, Lapeitah, out on Louisiana Red Hot Records. Produced and co-written by Brian J., Lapeitah includes nine originals and one cover that showcase modern New Orleans funk at its finest.

There are a number of guest stars on Lapeitah, including alto saxophonist Greg Thomas (George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic). Thomas plays on the exuberant “Muddy Waters” (below) and the soulful “We Got the Funk,” both of which share vocal choruses straight out of 1970s funk scene. Thomas is also featured on the instrumental “Get Funky,” which displays the connections between jazz and funk in a playful call and response between varying soloists and the rest of the musicians.

The album also features a number of guest vocalists, such as Corey Glover (Living Colour) on an impressive hard rock cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” Glover’s gritty vocals, which at times dissolve into rock star shrieks, are echoed by the timbre of Henry’s raw, relentless trombone solo. Nowhere is Henry’s New Orleans origin more evident than on the original “Baby C’mon,” featuring vocals by Cole “Ms. Cake” Williams. This funky, upbeat second-line pride song is perfect for Mardi Gras celebrations in Henry’s hometown.

The fusion of jazz and funk makes Lapeitah a joyful, celebratory outpouring of two of New Orleans’ most famous musical cultures. While the songs may sound carefree, the carefully curated songwriting and talent that Corey Henry and Brian J bring to the album prove that Henry is a force to be reckoned with in the New Orleans jazz and funk world.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review February 1st, 2017

Pennal Johnson – Conversations Live in Chicago

pj
Title: Conversations: Live in Chicago

Artist: Pennal Johnson

Label: Hitman Records

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: October 7, 2016

 

 

Conversations: Live in Chicago is a strong set by bassist Pennal Johnson, recorded in his hometown.  The record mixes programmatic themes—as on the tracks “Are We’” Parts I, II, and III, which deal with race, representation, and history—with straight-up funky jazz.  Johnson’s more conceptually challenging tracks on this record are sonically reminiscent of Sun Ra at times, and jazz-fusion pioneers at others.  However, the standouts on here are his (presumably) crowd-pleasing covers of funk standards such as “Cissy Strut” and “Mothership Connection.” He also digs deep into gospel on the tracks “Lead Me Guide Me” and a gospel rendition of the film Rocky’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now.”

Johnson is accompanied by a rhythm section full of crack players, including Buddy Fambro (guitar), Andre Henry (drums), Mark LeBranche (keys), and Royce Cunningham (percussion), as well as great horns and a strong vocal section that shines on his funky cover of The Beatles “Come Together.” Of course, as leader of the band, Johnson takes the starring role, playing the melodies of most tunes, and establishing the infectious grooves that permeate this release.  While the sudden alteration between hardcore socially-oriented jazz and funky grooves can get a bit dizzying, the record at times feeling like two distinct sets blended together, there is no doubt that the musicianship on Conversations: Live in Chicago is of the highest caliber.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review January 3rd, 2017

Gregory Porter – Live in Berlin

porter
Title: Live in Berlin

Artist: Gregory Porter

Label: Eagle Rock Entertainment

Formats: DVD+ 2CD, Blu-ray +2CD, Digital

Release date: November 18, 2016

 

 

This live performance captured in a two-CD/DVD set is an exciting release for Gregory Porter fans. His concert, performed on May 16, 2016, was filmed at the Philharmonie in Berlin and featured favorites from his albums: Water (2010), Be Good (2012), the Grammy Award-winning Liquid Spirit (2013), and his most recent album, Take Me To The Alley (2016).

Though live performances lack the creative production liberties that exist in studio recordings, the DVD and CD combination set allows fans to witness Porter’s talent and his love of performance as he serenades his audience. The staging of the Philharmonie is minimalist and intimate with simple lighting and just enough space for Porter and his band: pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, double bassist Jahmal Nichols, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. The audience surrounds the stage at all angles, drawing their focus towards the music.

Blending influences of jazz, gospel, blues, and soul, Porter wields his voice with deep control and gentleness. “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” “Take Me To the Alley,” “Hey Laura,” and his encore song, “Water Under Bridges,” each beautifully demonstrate his creative imagination and themes of love and fond memories.

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Porter and his band approach “Holding On,” “Liquid Spirit,” “1960 What?,” and his second encore song, “Free,” with increased energy and instrumental experimentation—calling attention to themes of racial oppression, collective pain, freedom, and hope for a stronger future. Occasionally during the performance, the film returns to a moving train car where Porter reflects on the meaning behind certain songs. Porter explains, “‘1960 What?’ is a documentary in a way, it’s protest, but it’s not what I want to happen, it’s what did happen.” The song encompasses the many places and people affected during this decade of racial unrest in the United States.

This live concert is an excellent collection of music by Gregory Porter. His performance is moving, entertaining, and surely even better in person.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review January 3rd, 2017

Adam O’Farrill – Stranger Days

adam-ofarrill
Title: Stranger Days

Artist: Adam O’Farrill

Label: Sunnyside

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: April 29, 2016

 

 

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and his brother Zack (the drummer in this quartet outing) are third-generation New York jazz royalty. Their grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was an in-demand arranger and composer and made recordings with Charlie Parker, Clark Terry and many other greats. Their father, Arturo O’Farrill, is a two-time Grammy winner and leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. So a heavy burden of expectations rests on the young O’Farrill brothers’ shoulders. With Stranger Days, they have chosen a new jazz direction, decidedly not Latin-flavored and decidedly the kind of melodic/swinging music associated with their father and grandfather.

The O’Farrill brothers, along with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax and Walter Stinson on bass, take a turn into free-jazz with episodes of bebop and the occasional aside of a brief swinging melody fragment. It’s abstruse music, and it takes a few listens to this album to understand the music and Adam O’Farrill’s vision.

The liner notes, by Zack O’Farrill, help. Zack notes that his brother is a “true cinephile” and an avid player of videogames. He cites those influences on Adam’s musical approach, a dedication to movie-like musical pictures and game-like interplay between the musicians. Plus, the brothers grew up immersed in music and were exposed to many different styles and genres. The music of this quartet seems particularly influenced by free-jazz and modern classical music, but they arrive at a somewhat more accessible style that is not all atonal/a-rhythmic screeching instruments. Indeed, at times they sound like the great Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, which says much for their musical chops.

If you saw the O’Farrill name and expect something Cuban-big band-swinging, you won’t find it here. But Stranger Days is worth a listen because Adam O’Farrill and his bandmates strike out in new directions. They are young, and there is a wide world for them to explore. It will be interesting to hear where they go from here.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

View review January 3rd, 2017

Kosi – I Know Who I Am

kosi

 

Title: I Know Who I Am

Artist: Kosi

Label: (self-released)

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: November 4, 2016

 

Akosua Gyebi goes by many names: she acts as the lead singer of the New York City jazz group Sweet Blue Fire, member of indie rock group The Goddess Lakshmi, and she just released her fourth full length solo album under the name Kosi. On her website, she calls her latest project, I Know Who I Am, a “concept album telling the story of guilt, absolution, love and self-actualization through original jazz and negro spirituals.”

The opening track starts with a 50-second snippet of “Hallelujah,” which she later sings in full. It is raw and especially emotional in light of Leonard Cohen’s recent passing. The album includes traditional spirituals such as “Servant’s Prayer” and “Walk With Me,” as well as many originals such as the dark, twisting jazz song “Guilty.” In the final track, “Morning After Blues,” Kosi’s goal of self-actualization is fulfilled, as she sings about accepting her body, her talents, and where she is in life. A snippet of the song can be heard in the promo below:

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While the recording quality is not always the most impressive, the skills of the backing musicians and Kosi’s passionate vocals still stand out on this sometimes unusual but captivating album chronicling her journey to self-acceptance.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review January 3rd, 2017

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra – Basically Baker, Vol. 2

basically-baker-2
Title: Basically Baker, Vol. 2

Artist: Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra

Label: Patois Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 23, 2016

 

On the 2-disc set Basically Baker, Vol. 2, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra celebrates the big band legacy of the late David N. Baker. The celebrated performer/composer founded the Jazz Studies program in 1968 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he was a beloved mentor to countless students over the decades—some of whom are featured on this project.  The first Basically Baker volume was recorded in 2005, and though trombonist Brent Wallarab said Baker talked to him for quite some time about a second volume, Baker’s death this March at the age of 84 gave the project the momentum it needed. For Wallarab, “the project was a way we could all channel our grief into something productive that honored David’s wishes to care for his music after he was gone.”

Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is remarkable because it features music that was previously performed almost exclusively at Indiana University. Contributing to the challenge of honoring Baker’s legacy are many of Baker’s students and protégés, such as Wallarab, saxophonist Tom Walsh, trumpeters Mark Buselli and Pat Harbison, and pianist Luke Gillespie, who form the main jazz orchestra. Special guests also appear on the album, and according to Wallarab, “many musicians cancelled or rescheduled other commitments already on the books to participate.” Trumpeter and multi-Grammy winner Randy Brecker, an IU alum, and IU jazz faculty guitarist Dave Stryker play on Baker’s composition for his granddaughter, “Kirsten’s First Song,” and IU jazz faculty trombonist and Patois Records label founder Wayne Wallace is featured on “Honesty.” A version of “Honesty” performed at the IU Jacobs School of Music can be seen below:

Basically Baker, Vol. 2 is not just a monument to Baker’s music, but also to his legacy and accomplishments. David Nathaniel Baker was born in Indianapolis in 1931, when the country was racially segregated, and jazz was a new, controversial form of music. Much had changed by the time of his death in 2016, and Baker contributed to these transitions through his jazz and classical compositions, his mastery of the trombone and cello, and his role as a pioneering jazz educator. In fact, many of the compositions featured on this album are from his extremely prolific first decade at IU. Baker loved using blues, popular song, and bebop in his jazz compositions, and even worked with Dizzy Gillespie for his arrangement of “Bebop,” the only non-Baker composition that appears on the album.

Through compositions such as “25th and Martindale” and “Harlem Pipes,” Baker honored his home, his family, and the global jazz community. Now on Basically Baker, Vol. 2, Baker’s own work and life is honored. The album posthumously furthers David Baker’s mission “to create, to swing, and to teach,” and cements his legacy by preserving his music for generations to come.

Editor’s note: One of Baker’s early projects at IU was the edited volume The Black Composer Speaks (1978). Interviews and research materials used for the production of the book are housed at the IU Archives of African American Music and Culture and described on this collection finding aid.

Reviewed by Anna Polovick

View review December 1st, 2016

Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra – Make America Great Again!

delfeayo
Title: Make America Great Again!

Artist: Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra

Label: Troubadour Jass Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

September’s new release by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis is a strong, if jumbled, album full of social commentary, strong arrangements, and all-around great playing from the trombonist’s sturdy and compelling band.

While the album’s title, Make America Great Again!, is lifted straight from the headlines of the 2016 presidential race and suggests that Marsalis is shooting for penetrating political discourse (although a cynic might say this is a clever way to plug the album through serendipitous Google or Amazon hits), much of this release is simply a study in good jazz band writing.  There certainly are gestures at social commentary, including an excellent arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” as the record’s opening cut. The title track offers a fairly obvious critique of the even more simplistic Trump campaign slogan, pointing out the conspicuous problems with the “Make America Great Again” rallying cry, given the country’s (to be charitable) checkered past.  This cut features the voice talents of the great actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme); unfortunately, the spoken word he delivers offers very little insight into the problems really at the heart of the resurgence of far right-wing politics in America. Overall, it seems like Marsalis, an artist who specializes in a particularly historically-conscious approach to jazz, is simply preaching to the choir on this one.

This album’s real high points are those where the band plays its swinging heart out. Marsalis and company dig deep into New Orleans trad-jazz on “Second Line,” comb West African music, rap, and jazz on “Back to Africa,” call back to the height of dance bands on “Symphony in Riffs,” play what sounds like the Basie chart for “All of Me,” and they even include a backbeat arrangement of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” complete with solo breaks. The Uptown Jazz Orchestra is a stylistic juggernaut, the album a veritable history book of American music. This compelling stylistic variety is largely due to the strength of the arrangements (by Kris Berg, Phil Sims, and Marsalis), but the absolute taste and skill of the players is not to be understated, either.

Marsalis and company’s music, rather than their political commentary, have the possibility to make American music great (again?). Without a doubt, this is the most stylistically diverse jazz album we will hear in 2016, a great alternative to the trite narratives we have heard from all sides of the political spectrum this year. I recommend turning off the news and putting on this record.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review November 1st, 2016

Wadada Leo Smith – America’s National Parks

wadada-leo-smith
Title: America’s National Parks

Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Label: Cuneiform

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: October 14, 2016

 

Wadada Leo Smith’s multi-movement suite, America’s National Parks, is a musical proposition for a more expansive and inclusive definition of who and what can carry the label as an American National Park. Spread out over six movements, Smith evenly divides his focus on pre-existing National Parks and sites and individuals that should be bestowed the designation of a national landmark. In this composition Smith melds “Ankhrasmation,” his self-designed graphic score notation with sections of composed and improvised music. Such an approach leads to thematic unity and cohesion within each of the movements while also providing ample room within each piece for the members of the Golden Quintet to shine. The addition of cellist Ashley Walters to the group for this recording provides Smith with a greater sonic palette and contributes to a soundscape and musical moments unheard before in his recordings. If there were one word to describe this recording, it would be sparse. The sparseness of the recording contributes to a sense of intimacy where one can envision each musician attentively listening to one another that in turn leads to moments throughout the piece of unique instrumental combinations and arrangements that emerge and grab the listener’s attention.

The three movements based upon Yellowstone, Sequioa/Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks are all remarkable for the sonic visualization of the openness and majesty of these parks. Moments of note in these three movements include the simple melody played by pianist Anthony Davis and Smith in the opening moments of the Yellowstone movement, the loose and enveloping soundscape produced by the quintet that complements Smith’s extended solos in the movement inspired by Sequioa/Kings Canyon National Park, and the cool, icy playing of Smith that mirrors the glaciers of Yosemite.

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The three remaining movements, as noted earlier, take their cue from sites and individuals not formally within the National Park system. In “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718,” Smith proposes that the entire city of New Orleans, not just a specific location or a certain performance style, should be memorialized as a National treasure. Smith does not attempt to recreate the music of New Orleans per say, but rather alludes to the sounds of the city while never quoting them explicitly: from the movement’s opening with a bass riff similar to the chants of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribes, to Smith’s blunt attacks and trumpet flourishes reminiscent of ragtime and early jazz, to the moments where pianist Anthony Davis’s runs can be heard as a homage to circum-Caribbean styles and genres.

The second movement (“Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National park”) takes as its cue the work and legacy of musicologist Dr. Eileen Southern In addition to being the first black female tenured professor at Harvard, Dr. Southern’s scholarly work greatly contributed to our understanding of the history and development of African-American musical practices in the United States. In what can best be described as an abstract call and response, Smith and the Golden Quintet demonstrate how this central practice to African-American musical culture, when placed in the right hands, produces a musical moment that extends beyond the categories and genres placed upon Black music and musicians.

For the fourth movement, Smith turns his attention towards the murky waters of the Mississippi River. Smith does not celebrate how the waterway fits within the ethos, ecology, or history of the American nation, but rather points to the river’s dark history as a disposal site for black bodies. Smith accomplishes this through an episodic-like structure alternating with brief moments of silence. The musical interruptions mirror Smith’s idea that the disposed bodies float to the top and disrupt the flow of the river while also reminding us of the humanity of said bodies.

America’s National Parks offers a unique musical meditation on the idea of common property and memory and puts the full range of Smith and The Golden Quintet’s skills and talents on display. Alongside recent accolades, awards, and gallery retrospectives, this album serves as a superlative reminder that Smith is one of America’s most talented composers and performers active today.

Reviewed by Brian Lefresne

View review November 1st, 2016

Ashleigh Smith – Sunkissed

asleigh-smith
Title: Sunkissed

Artist: Ashleigh Smith

Label: Concord Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: August 19, 2016

 

Ashleigh Smith’s debut album on Concord is collection of upbeat and bright songs of love and encouragement warmly reflective of the album title, Sunkissed. The track-list contains cover renditions of recognizable tunes and original music by Ashleigh and her band members, Nigel Rivers and Joel Cross, whom she met while studying jazz at the University of North Texas. The recordings include jazz arrangements with a full band, brass section, and string ensemble to support Ashleigh’s harmonious vocals.

The bossa nova beat of “Best Friends” introduces the album with a bittersweet plea to heal from the pain of a lost friendship. With Joel Cross’s acoustic guitar taking the lead followed by piano, brass, and a chorus building up into a key change, the song is hardly gloomy as the lyrical theme may imply:

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“The World is Calling,” written by Smith and Rivers, showcases her confidence and creativity as a jazz vocalist, while “Sunkissed,” co-written by Smith, Rivers, Keitie Young, and Nadia Washington, expresses encouragement to embrace one’s inner and outer beauty:

Don’t you let it go,
Mocha skin so brown,
Don’t you drop your crown,
Hold your light keep shining now,
Baby can’t you see?
You’re my little brown skin queen
.

Smith and her sister, Lauren Smith, together wrote the lyrics of “Into the Blue,” a love song that grapples with the complexity of emotions following the loss of a relationship. “Brokenhearted Girl” follows, a song about lost romance and emotional maturity with a melody similar to the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Each original piece reflects artists who have influenced Smith’s music—from Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Bill Withers to Sting. “Beautiful and True” is the only song that was written for Smith to perform by her former teacher, Rosanna Eckert. Her interpretation is as intense as it is gentle, with a dynamic orchestration encapsulating the climactic near-conclusion of the album.

The various cover songs emphasize the album’s themes of wonder and imagination. From the Beatles classic “Blackbird” to “Pure Imagination,” made famous by the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Smith experiments with the original musicality of these songs. Utilizing jazz instrumentation and dreamy vocal harmonies, she creates a truly haunting sound. “Love is You,” originally by Chrisette Michele, and “Sara Smile” by Hall and Oates similarly inspire a sense of familiarity, both complementing and completing Smith’s showcase of talent.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

View review November 1st, 2016

Joshua Breakstone: The Cello Quartet – 88

joshua-breakstone
Title: 88

Artist: Joshua Breakstone: The Cello Quartet

Label: Capri Records Ltd.

Format: CD

Release Date: October 21, 2016

 

Guitarist Joshua Breakstone and his cello quartet (featuring bassist Lisle Atkinson, cellist Mike Richmond, and drummer Andy Watson) pay tribute to pianists on the group’s latest release, 88.  In the liner notes to the record, Breakstone notes that, as a guitarist, he has always considered pianists “family,” because both instruments share the duties of being both accompanists and soloists.

While there isn’t really anything new here for fans of small combos or jazz guitar, Breakstone and his trio do what they do best: delivering compelling small-combo jazz, using a set of great tunes as vehicles for their improvisations. This approach leads to a set of halfway familiar tunes, such as a Latin rendering “Lolita” (from the Kubrick film of the same name), Tad Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” and the lesser-known standard “Soul Eyes,” composed by Mal Waldron.  The playing on this record is stellar, from Richmond’s fiery cello solo on “v to the band’s sturdy navigation of the potentially slippery Lennie Tristano tune “Lennie’s Pennies.” The only original on the album, Breakstone’s “88,” seems familiar as well, straight in the post-bop style pioneered by many of the musicians who Breakstone and company pay tribute to on this record.

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Overall, there isn’t anything groundbreaking here, but Breakstone’s quartet plays compelling tunes with aplomb. This is certainly worth a few listens, and for jazz cellists, guitarists and pianists, some serious study.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

View review November 1st, 2016

Quincy Jones – Live In Ludwigshafen 1961


Title: Live In Ludwigshafen 1961

Artist: Quincy Jones

Label: SWR-Jazz Haus

Formats: CD, digital

Release date: March 25, 2016

 

In 1959, Quincy Jones put together a big band orchestra for the European musical Free and Easy. The show lasted only a couple of months, playing for small audiences in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. Marooned in Europe with a payroll to meet, Jones and company set off touring the continent, booking venues and collecting money to pay their way forward. Eventually, the band ran out of money and came home to the U.S., with Jones $145,000 (in 1960 dollars) in debt. Mercury Records president Irving Green offered Jones a vice president position, and Jones went on to arrange and/or produce hits by Dinah Washington, Leslie Gore, Billy Eckstine and others. He eventually made his biggest mark on music as a producer (Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, etc.), but continued to make jazz and jazz-pop albums throughout his tenure with Mercury.

Jones continued touring with a big band early in his Mercury executive career, and live recordings made in Zurich, Switzerland on March 10, 1961 and the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in July of that year, have been released by Mercury/Polygram. Jones recorded his last strictly-jazz big band album, The Quintessence, for Impulse! Records in December, 1961, essentially ending his career as leader of a touring jazz big band.

On this CD is the band’s complete concert of March 15, 1961 at the Pfalzbau auditorium in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The well-made mono recording highlights the combination of ensemble and solo playing that was the trademark of Jones’ skilled and modern-sounding band. Featured are excellent live renditions of tunes on Jones’ Mercury studio albums, including “G’Won Train,” “Birth of a Band,” “Stolen Moments,” “Moanin’” and “I Remember Clifford.” Also included is a superb version of the Count Basie classic “Lester Leaps In” featuring great solos by guitarist Les Spann and pianist Patty Bown.

It’s worth listening carefully to Jones’ introduction of the band (track 13, which is followed by a somewhat loose and joyous version of “Birth of a Band,” the title cut to Jones’ first Mercury album). This lineup included many future headliners and leaders on 1960s jazz albums. That Jones could assemble such a band testifies to his influence in the music business even at a relatively young age. Although his greatest career highlights were years forward, this concert demonstrates why Quincy Jones always had the respect of musicians, and always knew how to please an audience.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

 

View review November 1st, 2016

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra – All My Yesterdays – The Debut 1966 Village Vanguard Recordings

thad-jones
Title: All My Yesterdays – The Debut 1966 Village Vanguard Recordings

Artist: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

Label: Resonance Records

Formats: 2-CD set, MP3, Streaming

Release date: February 19, 2016

 

Did you ever wonder where the musicians in the bands that appeared on various television variety shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s—such as the Mike Douglas Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and the Dick Cavett Show—went after work? Well, an important part of this answer is disclosed in this two-disc CD set from Resonance Records. The musicians gathered at the Village Vanguard—sometimes in the audience, but more often as members of perhaps the most distinctive jazz big band of the past fifty years. Some reviewers referred to this group as simply THE Jazz Orchestra, capitalizing THE for emphasis. But let’s first set the early foundation for this wonderful collaboration.

The recording careers of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis intersected many times and spanned similar decades. Jones made his mark with Count Basie and his appearances on recordings stretch from the ‘50s until his death in 1986. Lewis, who began with Ray Anthony and continued with Stan Kenton, was active as a session drummer throughout his career. Lewis’ first recording dates from 1949 (with Anthony), and he was a regular in clubs and studio sessions led by many well-known musicians and vocalists alike through the ‘80s. The first time that Jones and Lewis recorded together was in a studio in Chicago booked by Argo Records for a session led by James Moody, released as “Great Day.” It preceded the sessions on this CD set by three years.

Unlike other Resonance releases, over half of the tunes on All My Yesterdays previously appeared on a CD released by Alan Grant in collaboration with BMG Records. The notes to this Resonance release state that Grant’s earlier release was unauthorized, despite the fact that Grant, a noted jazz deejay, directly facilitated the organization of the band and its appearance at the Village Vanguard. Grant’s release also included his brief interview with Mel Lewis that was broadcast a week prior to the opening performance at the Village Vanguard. While this interview is excluded from All My Yesterdays, the Resonance set importantly adds five previously unreleased performances. By including a thick booklet containing many interviews with the musicians, Resonance makes this a truly definitive and wonderful production, taking a place alongside an earlier compilation by Mosaic Records of the majority of commercially released recordings by THE orchestra.

The style of the performances on All My Yesterdays is inclusive, ranging from elements that sound like traditional swing arrangements (hear Hank Jones’ Basie-tinged piano introduction to “Ah, That’s Freedom” on the second CD) to almost free form (such as the alto solo on “The Little Pixie”). Across this range, the band integrated soloists inside original arrangements, producing landmark recordings that demonstrate much of the history of jazz from the ‘30s through the ’70s. Jones was truly the creative leader providing the charts, but Lewis contributed the rhythmic unity and momentum that anchored each performance, seemingly both relaxed and propulsive at the same time.

The first CD opens with a thundering performance of Thad Jones’ original composition, “Back Bone.” Voices of band members and other musicians in the audience are heard throughout, shouting words of encouragement. The house was full and passions were high, while the level of creativity in the performances disappointed no one. Section work was tight, and soloists were inspired. The second CD’s highlight is a wonderful performance of “Lover Man;” however, the unique passion of band and audience on the first CD provides many high spots. We are truly fortunate that this special debut was captured so well on this recording. And by the way, the sound quality on these new CDs is absolutely beyond reproach. Resonance provides a wonderful release that you will enjoy, especially if you appreciate the evolution of big bands in the history of jazz music.

The official recorded history of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra began one month after these live Village Vanguard recordings. They appeared on LPs released on Solid State Records (a label owned by United Artists Records), which were later compiled and reissued with additional selections by Mosaic, including THE Orchestra backing vocalist Joe Williams. Another live recording one year later also captured a performance at the Village Vanguard. The final released recording of the band dates from 1985 on Atlantic, and it was the last time Jones and Lewis were recorded together in this reconstituted gathering. The only television program featuring the band I know of was on Jazz Casual, issued on DVD and streamed on YouTube. It is worth your time to watch it.

As a personal note, when in New York during 1971 to conduct interviews for part of my own doctoral research, I was fortunate to have a Monday evening free. Having heard of THE Orchestra, I hopped on the subway and reached the Village Vanguard in time to be seated before the opening set. Live, the performances were every bit as exciting as those captured on these wonderful CDs. Listen and I bet you will agree.

Track listings for each CD and session personnel follow:

Disc 1: February 7, 1966

Back Bone—All My Yesterdays—Big Dipper—Mornin’ Reverend—The Little Pixie—Big Dipper (alternate take). Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Snooky Young, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry (tp); Garnett Brown, Jack Rains (tb); Bob Brookmeyer (v-tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as,cl,fl); Joe Farrell (ts,cl,fl); Eddie Daniels (ts,cl); Marv “Doc” Hollady (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g, perc); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).

Disc 2: March 21, 1966

Low Down—Lover Man—Ah, That’s Freedom—Don’t Ever Leave Me—Willow Weep for Me—Mean What You Say—Once Around—Polka Dots & Moonbeams—Mornin’ Reverend—All My Yesterdays—Back Bone.

Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Bill Berry, Jimmy Owens, Danny Stiles (tp); Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Tom McIntosh (tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as, cl, fl); Joe Farrell (ts, cl, fl); Eddie Daniels (ts, cl); Pepper Adams (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).

Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad

Author of Born to Play: The Ruby Braff Discography and Directory of Performances

View review November 1st, 2016

Robert Glasper Experiment – Artscience

art-science
Title: Artscience

Artist: Robert Glasper Experiment

Label: Blue Note

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: September 16, 2016

 

Robert Glasper is arguably one of the most eclectic musicians in the business, perhaps in spite of (or maybe because of) the fact that he is generally considered to be a jazz musician.  The opening track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest release, Artscience, announces that the group intends to venture into the broad realm of musical styles and sounds that may fall into the category of “Black music.” As the soundscape gradually morphs from fast post-bop to a slow-burn hip hop groove, a sample of Glasper’s voice plays, declaring “The reality is, my people have given the world so many styles of music, so many different styles…we want to explore them all.”

The group’s newest release, Artscience, is difficult to call a jazz record at all, drawing from the precedent set on previous Black Radio releases. However, these earlier records largely owed their crossover appeal to high-profile guest stars like Snoop Dogg and Norah Jones, while Glasper’s band served as a supporting ensemble, performing at peak when laying down funky neo-soul grooves for artists like Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton. On Artscience, the group retains this crossover appeal while keeping the production self-contained. This record is full of electronically-oriented R&B with dance floor and slow jam ambitions.

“Day to Day” is a funky and robotic neo-disco dance cut that could easily have been culled from a Daft Punk record, complete with string swoops and autotuned vocal harmonies. Much of this record recalls the synth heavy, ‘80s-influenced sounds that artists like Blood Orange are rocketing to the top of the charts. While some of Glasper’s signature acoustic piano and Rhodes sounds are present, there are also synthesizers and production effects all over this album. Most of these tracks are structured like pop songs with slight modifications.  For instance, “No One Like You” follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, but it features an extended outro with solos by saxophonist by Casey Benjamin, Glasper, and a drum break by Mark Colenburg.  It is as though the group takes the extended dance break sections found on Michael Jackson and Prince records and fills them up with killer jazz solos, serving the album’s pop ambitions while reminding the audience that these are monster players.  The disc’s most memorable track, “Let’s Fall in Love,” borrows its title from a jazz standard, but is a slow jam full of breakbeats and atmospheric synthesizers.

Listeners looking for guest stars like those featured on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s previous albums or for the kind of solid jazz playing found on the Glasper’s acoustic records will be surprised, but pleasantly so, by the strength of the group’s R&B songs on Artscience.  While this is not the seminal entry in Glasper’s catalog, it is certainly a solid one.

Reviewed by Matt Alley

View review October 3rd, 2016

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