JAZZ IN SPACE: April 2010

Friday, April 30, 2010

Gail Pettis, Jazz Singer

Gail Pettis
Here In The Moment (OA2 Records)

Gail Pettis is a singer from the Seattle area who stepped into the jazz spotlight later in her life, only seriously turning to music in 2001 after a professional career. Her self-produced debut, “May I Come In?” was revelatory – hearing it for the first time was to discover a refreshing and fabulous new vocalist who made this listener a committed fan. It was a rare first recording that I still listen to and play for friends, who usually have the same enthusiastic reaction to her. 
         I was super excited to get my hands on her sophomore recording, “Here In The Moment” and several spins later, I found myself under Ms. Pettis’ spell -- her reading of standards and American Songbook staples are consistently rhythmic and soulful; she embraces these songs with a deeply felt, emotional honesty. Best of all, Pettis puts a reliable twist on the overly familiar and her delivery on these tuneful arrangements shake up what would otherwise be just another jazz singer’s record. Among the 11 strong tunes, “In The Still Of The Night” is a clever romp played at a jackrabbit’s pace, delightfully sung and featuring a snappy solo by pianist Darin Clendenin. The briefest tune, “I Thought About You,” is a poignant duet between Pettis and the pianist that’s simply a knockout. With a clear-as-a-bell voice, Pettis is playfully upbeat on “Day In, Day Out” and her lively trio swings for the fence. Also great is “Nature Boy,” here given a Latin-inflected treatment that highlights Pettis’ gentle and refined scatting with in-the-pocket solos by Clendenin and bassist Clipper Anderson.
        The album closes with a tune that was a 1985 hit for jazz/blues singer Johnny Adams. Over a background of finger snaps and a deliciously thick, walking bass line, Pettis slips into sustained groove singing, “Snap your fingers, I’ll come running/Back to you, on bended knee/Just snap your fingers, I’ll come running/I’ll be true, take a chance on me.” So there you go, Gail Pettis is the complete package – a singer with a tender heart and the confidence to forge ahead – a genuine soul singer, I tell you. 

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The Beat Goes On: Matt Slocum and Dana Hall

Matt Slocum
Portraits (Chandra Records)

Time to give some drummers some love. Debut recordings by two musicians illustrate the joys of leading with your drums, so to speak. Both are new to me – Matt Slocum, active as a sideman and involved with film scoring, is based in New York and his band features some of the most innovative players on the scene. Chicago based drummer, Dana Hall, is a more established musician with an impressive list of credits as a sidemen for 20 years and, while both dates make a statement, these two resourceful musicians take different approaches.
         Matt Slocum is neither showy nor flashy – he excels with mallets and brushes -- his restraint with big beat pyrotechnics is the album’s greatest asset. Slocum’s modern tunes and arrangements have a warm patina and they nourish the ears, due in part to pianist Gerald Clayton (Roy Hargrove) and guest saxophonists Jaleel Shaw, Walter Smith III and Dayna Stephens. Eight tunes are by Slocum and they’re solid pleasures especially his sax-bass-drum feature, “Homage,” and “Seven Stars,” arranged for quintet. The lyrical title tune, “Portraits” swings superbly with a particularly expressive Clayton. The liner notes are by veteran drummer, Peter Erskine, who obviously appreciates Slocum’s compelling talent. “Portraits” is an understated gem and Slocum a genuine discovery.

Dana Hall
Into The Light (Origin Records)
         Entitling his album “Into The Light,” Dana Hall could be suggesting a bonfire because this guy sets the music ablaze, especially on Herbie Hancock’s “I Have A Dream” (from “The Prisoner”) as well the title track, an inspired explosion of electrified derangement that elicits an immediate “wow.”  Hall speaks loud and clearly, actively engaging his drum set on a vigorous showcase for his technique and band – Bruce Barth on piano and fender Rhodes, Terrell Stafford on trumpet, saxophonist Tim Warfield, Jr and Rodney Whitaker on bass. Hall’s own tunes, notably “Conversation Song” and “The Path To Love” exemplify the drummer’s penchant for modern bop-oriented tunes with a healthy dose of swing. Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and, more currently, Jeff “Tain” Watts sound like they’ve all influenced Hall – the fact that this outfit is so tight is a testament to Hall’s impressive technique and leadership. “Into The Light” is a grand effort from Hall, enriched by superior musicianship and exemplary group interplay.  

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Jazz You Should Hear: John Pizzarelli, Tia Fuller reviews

John Pizzarelli
Rockin’ In Rhythm: A Duke Ellington Tribute (Telarc) 

A seriously entertaining record.  Within his deep discography, John Pizzarelli has produced several tribute recordings (Dear Mr. Sinatra, Meets The Beatles, Dear Mr. Cole and one more, P.S. Mr. Cole) but this is his first time reinventing the Ellington songbook and it’s a doozy. The singer/guitarist is world-renowned for his showmanship, while his concerts, performances and radio show play up his easy-breezy personality. That persona, along with his fleet fingered prowess is in full force here on his ninth album for Telarc. I don’t know what it is about John Pizzarelli but he just gets better.
         A big part of this album’s success lies with Pizzarelli’s core band – his brother Martin on bass, piano whiz Larry Fuller, Tony Tedesco on drums -- and guests like vocalist Jessica Molasky (Mrs. Pizzarelli) and Kurt Elling (who joins the guitarist on a sizzling Gerald Wilson arrangement of “Perdido), saxophonist Harry Allen, dad Bucky, and violinist Aaron Weinstein. A vibrant four-horn section does Duke’s music proud, and the quality of those charts rests squarely on the shoulders of arranger Don Sebesky. The album combines snazzy vocals and instrumental arrangements (the band rockets “C Jam Blues” to the moon and back and it’s kind of awesome) but a bouncing version of “Satin Doll” and a seductively dark mash-up of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo with” Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” are winners, too. (12 tracks; 49:48) 

Tia Fuller
Decisive Steps (Mack Avenue Records)
For her sophomore recording on the Mack Avenue label, saxophonist Tia Fuller lights up “Decisive Steps,” a bold artistic declaration spotlighting Fuller’s compositional strengths, musical ability and her dynamic band featuring drummer Kim Thompson, bassist Miriam Sullivan and Shamie Royston on piano and Fender Rhodes. This is a powerful and gifted group of women, rare on today’s jazz scene, and it doesn’t hurt that Fuller and her drummer toured as part of Beyonce’s band for the past two years. It’s a significant credential that Fuller rightfully trades on. Interestingly, “Decisive Steps” is a muscular post-bop modern jazz romp – no smooth jazz or R&B here. Her solos are often blistering (though tuneful) and her songs have a soulful, swinging Cannonball Adderley-like vibe. Favorite tracks include the title cut, “Ebb and Flow,” featuring guest bassist Christian McBride and the Latin flavored “Shades Of McBride” named for her friend. Label mate, trumpeter Sean Jones, adds his distinctive solo to the high-flying “Windsoar” and the standard, “I Can’t Get Started,” simmers late-night style with Fuller’s burnished sound and Warren Wolf’s melodic contribution on vibraphone. Overall, the album captures a band in its element – playing hard (and well) together. “Decisive Steps” has an aura of confidence that puts Tia Fuller among the top tier of current saxophone players. (10 tracks; 55:45)  

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Fourplay in Concert

In Concert at the Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA
April 11, 2010

         It’s hard to believe that the contemporary jazz outfit, Fourplay, is about to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a band, a milestone that distinguishes them as one of the genre’s most enduring groups. Besides their longevity, what’s most striking about this musical brotherhood, comprised of keyboardist/leader Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and until recently the bluesy guitarist Larry Carlton, is their casual virtuosity and good natured riffing that puts more emphasis on creating a vibe than improvisation. Their sleek sound, dominated by precise funk, percussive R&B and soft Latin rhythms, has remained influential as have the musicians themselves. James is often noted as one of the architects of “smooth jazz” (and reputed to be the most sampled musician by rap artists) and there’s no denying his and Fourplay’s gift for punchy melodies and relaxed in-the-pocket compositions.
The band buzzed into the Keswick Theater and took the stage with the photogenic saxophonist Kirk Whalum, dressed in a sharkskin suit and fedora, who guest starred on tenor and soprano until Fourplay’s new guitarist, Chuck Loeb, joins the group later in the spring. A peek at their MySpace page reveals a “100% Sax Free” badge but the loosening of this rule allowed for a novel concert and Spinal Tap-like antics – the band freezes in position to punctuate the ending of “Blues Force,” a crowd-pleasing number with a breezy, danceable groove.  
The set kicked off with a Marcus Miller tune, “Maputo,” (from the Bob James/David Sanborn hit album, “Double Vision”) that featured Whalum, a robust tenor player, blowing over a percolating groove powered by Mason’s surging kick drum and East’s heavy duty thumb slaps. The compact set list focused on the group’s early efforts like “Chant” that highlighted East’s billowy vocalese and “Max-O-Man,” a tune where Whalum carefully built his solo, his melodic stream of consciousness shifting from smooth scale runs to a controlled pitch defined by jagged honks and shouts. Pianist James was curiously low-key, content to comp behind his band mates while adding the occasional synthetic flourish. His best moment, a bristling extended solo on “101 Eastbound,” had a welcome sense of purpose that live situations encourage and audiences love.
A funky rendition of “Amazing Grace,” marked the concert’s center of gravity, and was led by an engaging Harvey Mason who artfully shifted tempos, slipping in quotes from “Poinciana” and such until James, East and Whalum led an eventual audience sing-along of “Amen.” With obvious enjoyment, the band settled into a perfect musical conversation with one another, unified as if Whalum had always been a part of Fourplay.  In the end, it all came back to James who concluded the show with his classic “Westchester Lady” from his “Three” solo album. As the band traded solos on a four-way, single-note call and response, it was obvious that for a quartet who made their first recording in 1991, Fourplay has maintained their authenticity by doing things their way, essentially critic-proof and with a humbling appreciation for their enthusiastic fans.  www.fourplayjazz.com
Photo by Sonny Abelardo; thanks, Sonny!

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Jazz You Should Hear: Paul Motian, Ian Carey Quintet, Wayne Brasel Quartet

Paul Motian/Chris Potter/Jason Moran
Lost In A Dream (ECM Records)

Drummer Motian, still legendary and intellectually impish, continues to make unpredictable music. “Lost In A Dream” documents a splendid February 2009 gig at the Village Vanguard with a fresh trio featuring a long-time partner saxophonist Chris Potter and a newer collaborator, pianist Jason Moran, on a set of ballads and freer musical explorations. The album is well titled since its pensive compositions evolve and mutate continuously, moving from chamber jazz to solos with classical shadings. Potter’s tenor often takes flight to hover and float over Motian’s idiosyncratic rhythms and Moran’s chords swirl in eddies of sound.
Their intergenerational relationship is remarkable -- tunes like “Casino,” “Blue Midnight” and “Be Careful My Heart” coalesce around moods rather than structure and towards the end, on “Drum Music,” “Abacus” and “Cathedral Song,” the trio’s improvisation flutters and breaks free, notes fly and fall where they may and the audience reaction finally moves from polite appreciation to ecstatic approval. www.ecmrecords.com 

The Ian Carey Quintet
Contextualizin’ (Kabocha Records)

         West Coast trumpeter, Ian Carey, might also be described as a short story writer because his songs are uniquely narrative in form. Carey, who in tone and spirit resembles Art Farmer, writes tunes that are inquisitive and probing – they go somewhere -- and his fine band stands at the ready as Carey’s imagination and musicality leads the way. On trumpet or flugelhorn he casts a warm patina over eight original compositions and one cover, “Just Friends,” that illustrates the organic sounding rapport Carey shares with alto saxophonist Evan Francis, pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Fred Rudolph and drummer Jon Arkin.

          As a composer, Carey encourages thoughtful interplay. Witness the tension between Carey and pianist Shulman on the moody “Questions” and further in, where Francis’ alto explores pathways of sound as if in a hedge maze, venturing one way then another all the while framed by the bassist and drummer. The most rewarding tune, “Leap Year” has a modern texture provided by Shulman on Fender Rhodes, and it grabs your ear with its loping, waltz-like structure. But start with the title tune, with its confident theme and front-line horns, because it exemplifies Carey’s natural ability to express ideas that percolate with emotion and by its conclusion, you’ll feel a satisfying release that leaves you anticipating the next tale he will tell. www.iancareyjazz.com 

The Wayne Brasel Quartet
“If You Would Dance” (BraJazz Records)

On this significant recording, jazz guitarist Wayne Brasel sweeps aside any hint of sentimentality on an evocative album of lovely, starry-eyed tunes played with a keen sense of swing thanks to a dream band – the superb drummer Peter Erskine, lyrical pianist Alan Pasqua and Tom Warrington on acoustic bass. Standout moments abound on this honest, gentle recording like the finger-popping “Celebration” that chugs along over Erskine’s cymbal rides, the Brazilian tinged “Elias” (named for Erskine’s peer, pianist Eliane Elias) and “Oleo de Mujer con Sombrero,” set against a subtle background of percussion, sensitive brushes and with another fine solo from Pasqua. The nine tracks have a cinematic feel and rustic tunes like “Aberdeen” and “A Heart On Fire” sound as if they were composed for the twilight hour, that abbreviated space of time where the sun is setting in a western sky and the landscape is bathed in glowing hues of reds and yellows. www.waynebrasel.com 

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