Archive for the ‘cd reviews’ Category
Ronnie Cuber, “Live at Jazzfest Berlin” (SteepleChase)
Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber’s third release for SteepleChase predates his association with the label, and might be thought of as a happy accident. At the titular fest, in 2008, Cuber’s quartet—with pianist Kenny Drew Jr., electric bassist Ruben Rodriguez and drummer Ben Perowsky—played a two-set show that the four remembered as a highlight of their European tour. Unbeknownst to them, the concert was recorded for a radio broadcast, and Cuber subsequently opted to give the music an official release. He had good instincts: The seven tunes culled from the evening have Cuber and co. in fine form, with the saxophonist, underappreciated pianist Drew and the in-sync rhythm section excelling on blues, swing and Latin-oriented tunes, including four originals.
The band romps from the get-go with Horace Silver’s “Tokyo Blues,” its call-and-response head opening up into an extended solo for Cuber, who incorporates artful repetition, syncopation, overblowing effects and a Gershwin reference before turning it over to Drew. He proceeds to build a dizzying, masterful solo, and Rodriguez and Perowsky also shine on the 12 1/2-minute tune. The samba rhythms of Clare Fischer’s bright, catchy “Coco B” fuel sterling improvisations by Drew and Cuber. So, too, do the fertile Afro-Caribbean grooves of Cuber’s “Passion Fruit,” the title track from the saxophonist’s 1985 album, which opens up for a high-energy montuno section, and his “Arroz con Pollo,” bolstered by Rodriguez’s fleet-fingered workout.
The quartet also takes on Herbie Hancock’s melancholy, slowly shifting “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” and two originals from Drew: the funk-edged “Things Never Were What They Used to Be,” a nod to the Mercer Ellington tune, and “Perpetuating the Myth,” a strolling, twisting, bluesy piece with a bari-and-piano unison melody that nods to Monk. Fat, gritty tone? Check. Agile, clever improvisations? Check. Cuber still has it.
Kermit Ruffins, “We Partyin’ Traditional Style” (Basin Street Records)
Kermit Ruffins has become Kermit, Inc., gathering crowds for regular gigs in New Orleans, running his own restaurant, touring and memorably playing himself—an eminently good-natured, way laidback jazz cat—on HBO’s Treme.
He’s still releasing appealing audio souvenirs. This time, he applies his distinctive barking, slurring and growling playing and singing to traditional tunes, with several of the city’s top-rank musicians, including drummer Shannon Powell, pianist Steve Pistorius, banjo man Don Vappie and trombonist Lucien Barbarin.
“Careless Love” benefits from a gospel-blues underpinning, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” is a suitably warm and mellow salute to St. Louis, the punchy “Treme Second Line” is reminiscent of Ruffins’ days with the Rebirth Brass Band and a playful “When the Saints Go Marching In” caps it all.
(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)
The drummer gives the saxophonists some on Coexist, another round of sophisticated truth telling from Winard Harper that demonstrates high standards of musical excellence when it comes to expansive compositions, creative arrangements and choice of able bandmates.
Heading ensembles ranging from sextets to tentets, the leader taps guest saxophonists on five of the disc’s 12 tracks. He also shows off his considerable gifts as a trap-set wizard, percussionist and, on his African-tinged “Ummah” and “Jeli Posse,” a player of the balaphone, a vibraphone-type instrument from West Africa.
One of the most impressive collaborations comes toward the end of the disc, with Frank Wess’ elegant, luxuriant reading of the ballad “Dedicated to You,” his tenor soloing over the laidback rhythms of Harper, pianist Roy Assaf and bassist Stephen Porter, and often juxtaposed with the mellow horn clusters of trumpeter Bruce Harris, tenor saxophonist Jovan Alexandre and trombonist Michael Dease. Wess turns to flute for a similarly lush version of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” backed by a five-piece group with Tadataka Unno on piano.
Mark Gross leads on alto on the slinky, blues-tinted “Hard Times” and “Jeli Posse,” while alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity gets showcase moments on Billy Taylor’s Latin-to-swing “A Bientot.” Harper takes a detour to church with a soulful “Amazing Grace,” while Latin and African percussion drive the title track and hard-bop colors dominate “Something Special,” “Get Tough” and “Triumph.”
Cliff Hines, “Wanderlust” – The New Orleans guitarist works with his own band and a cavalcade of notable Crescent City talent to create a suite of atmospheric acoustic-electric music drawing from multiple genres. Loose- limbed Brazilian jazz bumps up against electronica and Sasha Masakowski’s wordless vocals on the opening “Brothers” and then it’s off to improvised new music on “Dresden Intro,” with pianist Andrew McGowan and guest cellist Helen Gillet backed by static-filled shortwave radio transmissions, leading into “Dresden,” a fusion piece with Hines’ six-string surrounded by ricocheting feedback.”Tehran” is flavored with Middle Eastern percussion, oud-like guitar sounds and electric piano, and the title track, with Bill Summers (Headhunters, Los Hombres Calientes) on percussion and Kent Jordan on flute, shifts from Brazilian guitar figures to rhythms moving from the Caribbean to Africa. Astral Project bassist James Singleton takes a beefy, growling extended solo on the New Orleans-tinted “Aetherea,” which also features trombonist Michael Watson, and Rex Gregory on bass clarinet. The switch-the-dial texture shifting continues with the lush strings, aching vocals and bossa nova rhythms of “Lonely Moon”; the dark, intense “Clouds,” with Gregory’s urgent soprano sax work; and “Arjuna Intro,” a raga built around Dave Easley‘s sitar-like slide guitar and Dave McLean‘s tabla playing, with Hines on ebow guitar and loops. It’s an intriguing pan-global affair, quite ambitious and often engaging.
Nick Finzer, “Exposition” (Outside In Music) — The dynamic young trombonist, joined on the front line by tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino, leads a sextet of fellow fast-rising NYC players on a set of 10 bracing original compositions. Finzer, in his playing as well as his writing, references the likes of bone masters J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Steve Turre. The trombone/tenor blend makes for a pleasing, slightly retro tonality and Finzer, on his recording debut as a leader, proves to be a marvelously agile and intuitive improviser. “The Ramp” allows Pino to show off his considerable chops, and opens wide for drummer Jimmy MacBride‘s build-up and eruptions over the 5/4 groove, while the laidback “Eventide” feels like a lazy summer stroll (as Finzer suggests in the liner notes) and the ballad “With Gratitude” has the leader making artful use of a bucket mute. “Introspection,” another gem, is a quiet, meditative piece inspired by a progression borrowed from Ellington’s “New Orleans Suite.”
Michigan State University Professors of Jazz, “Better Than Alright” (Michigan State University College of Music) — MSU jazz studies director and well-traveled bassist Rodney Whitaker is joined by fellow jazz faculty members — top-flight players, all — for tunes largely taken from three original suites, with the individual compositions
distributed across two CDs (rather than being presented sequentially). Whitaker’s “Jazz Up-South” was inspired by the South-to-North migration of African Americans in the U.S., and titles tell the story of the other two suites — saxophonist Diego Rivera‘s “The Spanish Tinge,” and trumpeter Etienne Charles‘ “Jazz in the Caribbean.” Highlights of the set include lively Rivera-penned opener “Nueva York,” Charles’ ballad “Turquoise” and the airy “3 Note Blues,” Whitaker’s sprawling, hard-swinging “Big Four” and “Robert’s Lament,” the latter fronted with a thoughtful unaccompanied bass solo, and a zippy take on the standard “Broadway,” arranged by Whitaker. Academic setting, yes; however, the sharply arranged compositions, played by a hard-bop sextet in the mold of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, are anything but dry.
(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)
Fastest, most melodic thumb in jazz-funk or not—and on many days, he deserves that title—bassist-producer-composer Marcus Miller wields that digit in a manner that’s impossible to ignore. He does that instantly identifiable thing he does with great panache and high musicality from the get-go on Renaissance, his first studio recording since 2008’s Marcus.
Title aside, Miller’s latest is more about the new old-school than the new new-school. That is, he nods to the ’70s, starting with the deep funk of “Detroit,” a bass-out-front piece that often has the leader playing in unison with guitarist Adam Agati and two horn players, alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Maurice Brown. The music of the aforementioned decade is also alive on “CEE-TEE-EYE,” a partial homage to the jazz-rock crossover of Creed Taylor’s CTI label; a lively take on War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” bolstered by the percussion of Ramon Yslas, Kris Bowers’ creatively rambling piano and snatches of reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”; and the album closer, an unaccompanied version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
While hardly a variety show, the disc handily shows off Miller’s agility, as he skates from the bottom-thrusting “Redemption,” with keys/horn lines reminiscent of Joe Zawinul, to “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” featuring rubbery fretless bass à la Jaco, breathy vocals courtesy of Gretchen Parlato and Rubén Blades, and a rhythmic riff hinting at “Manteca.” “February,” featuring an extended solo by Han, is one of Miller’s most affecting ballads, while he amps up the hard rock, led by guitarist Adam Rogers, on “Jekyll & Hyde,” and uses his bass clarinet to lead “Gorée (Go-ray),” a tender-to-raucous piece inspired by a visit to the titular island, once a departure point for Africans forced into slavery. Dr. John even stops by for the bumping and thumping “Tightrope.” Nice catch.
(recently reviewed for JazzTimes; direct link)
MSMW, in the studio and onstage, everywhere from Bear Creek Music Festival in the north Florida woods to the Montreal Jazz Festival, always sounds like a natural-born partnership—the deep jazz-funk and experimental genius of Medeski, Martin and Wood running smack into the similarly tinted explorations of guitar master John Scofield. The particular pleasures of the quartet’s live work have finally been captured on an official release, with the two-disc In Case the World Changes Its Mind, a dozen tracks recorded during the tour supporting the group’s 2006 CD Out Louder.
The set begins, logically enough, with “A Go Go,” the title tune from the 1997 John Scofield album on which he was joined by MMW—the quartet’s initial collaboration. Billy Martin sets up the piece’s low-slung, laidback pocket groove, John Medeski flashes candy-colored keys, Chris Wood slides in on woolly upright and Scofield, his slightly overdriven, burred-edge tone intact, finally brings in the lean, catchy melody, which Medeski doubles before the solos arrive. Sco slithers and snakes through the heavily percolating rhythms while Medeski turns in a similarly zig-zagging improvisation. The traditional “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” opens with a long intro full of percussion sounds and scrapes before Wood plays the bluesy melody, Martin kicks in with a beat straight outta New Orleans and the band sets sail. The title track, credited to all four musicians, thrives on a simple but effective melody, repeated multiple times before the group heads out to space.
The second disc offers its share of gems, too, starting with Sco’s “Little Walter Rides Again,” with the guitarist and organist engaging in a bit of call-and-response on the hooky theme and Wood turning in a particularly inspired bass guitar solo. “Amazing Grace” thrives on a loosey-goosey guitar lead and soulful B3 declarations, and the disc closes out with the chunky-to-soaring “Hottentot,” powered by wah-wah and some of the set’s most impressive soloing. All-star bands seldom sound so organic, or play as well together, as this one. Letdowns? Only that “Chicken Dog,” “Chank” and MSMW’s gorgeous version of Lennon’s “Julia” weren’t included. Maybe next time.
(recently reviewed for JazzTimes; direct link)
An entire generation of guitarists—musicians of every stripe, whether, rock, blues or jazz—points to the Beatles as a lifelong inspiration, beginning with their 1964 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Bill Frisell, who never met a genre he couldn’t straddle, is no exception. “The songs are part of us,” he writes in the liner notes to his latest, a salute to the music of John Lennon. “There was nothing we really needed to do to prepare for this. We’ve been preparing our whole lives.” These songs are darn familiar, maybe too much so, but Frisell’s approach to them is lived-in, bone-deep and occasionally revelatory.
These 16 arrangements of Lennon tunes, from Beatles albums and solo releases, grew out of Frisell’s 2005 tour with guitarist Greg Leisz and violinist Jenny Scheinman, augmented by bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen during a 2010 residency at Yoshi’s in Oakland. The intertwining is the thing, and the instruments meld beautifully, occasionally hinting at the kind of Americana textures heard on Frisell’s 1997 Nashville album. Flickering strings and a unison guitar-and-violin melody are heard on a beautifully mournful “Julia,” while another Lennon favorite, “Imagine,” takes its time getting to the melody, with criss-crossing fiddle and steel guitar supporting the leader’s reading of the theme.
Frisell opens the disc with a quiet, brooding “Across the Universe,” all sparkling harmonics, delicate cymbals and tender chording. While the album is dominated by mellow pieces, several rockers do show up to enliven the proceedings, including the slightly overdriven guitars, high-flying fiddle and country stomp of “Revolution”; a dissonance-buzzed “Come Together,” replete with a long, effects-drenched outro; and a stark, hard-slamming “Mother” that builds into a furious jam. The closing, dirge-speed “Give Peace a Chance” makes for a noisy electric tone poem. Audacious stuff.
(recently reviewed for JazzTimes; direct link)
Nearly 25 years after his recording comeback and a decade after his last in-concert album, 2001′s Live at Yoshi’s, Pat Martino turns in a set that has the revered guitarist reprising the bluesy organ-based jazz that launched his career in the ’60s. This time he’s caught on the East Coast, at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley, for a sometimes mellow, sometimes rambunctious set featuring his band at the time — frequent collaborator Tony Monaco on B3 organ, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. Martino’s melding of heady bop lines and fat grooves remains as engaging as ever.
The school of soul jazz is in session on several occasions here, particularly on a pair of blues shuffles, both of which bring to mind the music Martino heard and played during his early career stint in Harlem. The aptly titled “Goin’ to a Meeting” stretches out to 10 minutes with the help of an earthy, yelping romp by Alexander, who often steals limelight from the leader. The tuneful tenor-and-guitar unison melody of “Midnight Special” is followed by a conversant, staccato-chopped organ solo and an adventuresome turn from Martino that has the guitarist unleashing long series of notes and making use of a repeated phrase.
The quartet opens with the uptempo swing tune “Lean Years,” the setting for a blistering introductory display of fretboard prowess by Martino. The swing is the thing, too, on the laidback “Inside Out” and bright closer “Side Effect.” Rounding things out is the sole tune not penned by Martino, an inviting take on “’Round Midnight.” The guitarist, joined only by Monaco and a quiet, brushes-bearing Watts, imbues the melody and his inquisitive solo with a certain warmth, and the guitarist’s use of octaves recalls his long-ago acquaintance and influence Wes Montgomery.
I recently reviewed Never Stop, the latest CD from eclectic acoustic trio The Bad Plus, for Las Vegas City Life. Click here to go directly to the review, or see the full text below.
Whether covering Radiohead, Nirvana or David Bowie, or doing its own thing, The Bad Plus always comes equipped with unusual powers of reinvention and real understanding of how to create musical drama, skills that served it well on For All I Care, 2008′s covers album with singer Wendy Lewis. An acoustic jazz trio, with sensibilities also rooted in rock and classical, adding a vocalist and taking on Wilco’s “Radio Cure,” Yes’s “Roundabout” and Stravinsky? What’s not to like?
For Never Stop, it’s all originals, all the time, and pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King don’t disappoint.
The stuttering theme and rhythms of the title track, edged with marching rhythms, feels like hypnotic pop with a swelling chorus. Two pieces, “People Like You” and “Bill Hickman at Home,” sprawl past the nine-minute mark: The former is a quiet, harmonically rich ballad that alternately surges and relaxes, while the latter, with Iverson on an antique-sounding piano with pointedly iffy intonation, is half bar room swagger, half arty experimentation, with plenty of open space for Anderson’s surprising explorations.
The trio brings the chewy funk on the pulsing “Beryl Loves to Groove,” and goes for bluesy gospel on closer “Super America.” No charge for the handclaps