That special time of year has come around again, filling everyone with holiday cheer. But nothing has the ability to spread Christmas spirit quite like music does. Following are brief reviews of what we believe to be the best holiday albums so far this year, featuring releases from Keb’ Mo’, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The McCrary Sisters, Elijah Blake, Jonathan Butler, and Mariah Carey. We hope these selections provide the perfect soundtrack for everyone’s holiday season. Continue reading
Title: Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony
Artist: Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Label: Blue Engine
Formats: Digital (Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon, Tidal, and from jazz.org)
Release date: July 1, 2019
Trumpeter, bandleader, educator, Pulitzer Prize winner, symphonist—Wynton Marsalis has run the gamut of musical accomplishments, both as a musician and as a composer. This release, one of four albums appearing this year, is the premiere recording of Marsalis’s Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3), first written in 2010. The work “traces the evolution of the swing rhythm from ragtime to this very moment in order to unite diverse instrumental techniques, musical personalities, song forms, dance grooves, and historic eras.” Drawing inspiration and musical material from the past, Marsalis has telescoped over a century of jazz into an hour, deftly performed here by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Robertson. Continue reading
Title: Bolden: Music from the Original Soundtrack
Artist: Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Engine
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: April 19, 2019
The name Charles “Buddy” Bolden should be a familiar one for many jazz fans and aficionados. Bolden, a New Orleans cornet player, is “ranked among the most influential yet obscure figures in the pantheon of American music,” according to jazz clarinetist and historian Dr. Michael White. Known for developing a style of music that blended Black sacred and secular musical aesthetics (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas), European dance music, marching-band, and Caribbean folk styles, Bolden laid the foundation and was a progenitor for what we refer to today as jazz music. Although none of his recordings or compositions are extant, we have an understanding of what the cultural and musical environment was like during that period. Continue reading
Title: The Music Never Stops
Artist: Betty Carter
Label: Blue Engine/Jazz at Lincoln Center
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 29, 2019
The Music Never Stops is the never-before-released live recording of the late, and great, Betty Carter’s 1992 performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Known for her awe-inspiring scat improvisation and creative lyricism, Carter has without a doubt been one of the most influential jazz singers in American history. Her career spanned several decades, and in the past she collaborated with artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Ray Charles, among many other prominent figures. Continue reading
Title: Handful of Keys
Artist: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Label: Blue Engine
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 15, 2017
The latest release from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Handful of Keys, features pianists Joey Alexander, Dick Hyman, Myra Melford, Dan Nimmer, Helen Sung, and Isaiah J. Thompson. According to the liner notes by Myra Melford, “this concert was an ‘encapsulated history’ exploring the many rich traditions and styles that define jazz piano today.” By showcasing a multi-generational group (ranging from ages 13 to 89), this album does an outstanding job at presenting 100 years of jazz piano.
The words phenomenal and exhilarating come to mind when describing this project, with each featured pianist offering a different layer of excitement. Beginning with Dick Hyman’s arrangement of “Jingles” by James P. Johnson, the listener is shown a glimpse into the past while given a taste of Hyman’s personality. His flawless execution of intricate passages during this performance demonstrates his dexterity on the piano, and his brilliance in jazz. “Four By Five” captures the spirit of McCoy Tyner, while demonstrating Helen Sung’s creativity as a pianist and arranger. Fragments of Tyner’s vocabulary (pentatonic and quartal harmony) are heard in Sung’s solo, but what’s even more interesting is the way Tyner’s vocabulary is incorporated in the melodic phrases of the horn section.
Joey Alexander’s heartfelt performance on Bill Evans’ “Very Early” provides excitement through his use of melodic and rhythmic motivic development (in the style of Evans), while Myra Melford’s use of Afro-Cuban montuno patterns and rhythm blended with free improvisational concepts on “The Strawberry” inspires us to dance. Isaiah J. Thompson’s magnificent tribute to pianist Oscar Peterson, “Hymn To Freedom,” takes us on a musical journey displaying virtuosic melodic lines and block chords reminiscent of Peterson. Lastly, but certainly not least, pianist Dan Nimmer of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performs a fabulous rendition of Wynton Kelly’s “Temperance,” displaying his technical abilities and finesse for jazz piano while capturing the light and expressive style of Kelly.
While this album features jazz pianists, we cannot neglect the role of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The ensemble does not miss a beat moving from one style to another. The precision of notes, the time-feel, and the overall sound of the collective ensemble displays a high level of musicianship and professionalism, while providing support for the featured pianists.
Handful of Keys is an album that honors the jazz tradition and legacy of past pianists, while contributing new interpretations and arrangements to ensure the continuing longevity of the genre.
Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste