JAZZ IN SPACE: June 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Since his 2008 debut, “Consequences” (Posi-tone), the first-rate British pianist, John Escreet, has spent time touring in Europe and performing throughout his new home base of New York City, honing his compositional chops and intrepid style of modern jazz. His tumbling notes and percussive attack recalls the spirited energy of the late pianist Don Pullen and at 25, he’s already an astute bandleader to an indispensible group of A+ musicians well versed in Escreet’s brand of improvisation.

For his sophomore release, “Don’t Fight The Inevitable,” the pianist continues to see the possibilities in big ideas. Escreet cannily puzzles together kaleidoscopic passages where the front line horns combust with sophisticated harmonics and each musician performs with amazing facility. “Civilization On Trial” builds on a dramatic four note theme (punctuated with black and white horror film cues) that evolves to shift time and tempo, its melody mutating into strands pulled apart by saxophonist David Binney and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, until the always-in-control Escreet guides his musicians to ground.

On the title track and “Magic Chemical (For The Future)” Escreet uses free jazz, straight-ahead swing and a bit of alt-pop that fuel off-kilter rhythms for maximum tension and release. He collaborates with Binny on a synthesized “Soundscape” blending post-modern classical motifs with sci-fi tremolos, and “Charlie In The Parker” features a clever use of looped vocal samples of the great man himself.

Escreet’s work has many moving parts (vividly captured by ace engineer Mike Marciano) and the band is clearly game. The nimble bassist Matt Brewer serves as a grounding energy for the pianist’s rollicking solos as does another star in Escreet’s orbit, Nasheet Waits, a seasoned, polyrhythmic drummer with a keen sense of flow. Binney gets extra credit for his haunting use of electronic sampling and tonal dissonance, used most effectively on “Avaricious World,” the closer that’s constructed of intervallic jazz vamps and cinematic themes. Near the tune’s end, over waves of ethereal sound, Akinmusire issues plaintive trumpet cries. A halting bass line weaves in and out until Escreet steps in like a satisfied observer, playing flickering keynotes that wane and float out into the electrified void. (8 tracks; 60:58 minutes)  

I spoke with John in a phone interview and was impressed by his passion about music. He told me he began playing the piano at 4 and was the only musical member of his family. He switched briefly to saxophone after gravitating to jazz from classical studies in school but soon returned to the piano as his primary instrument. He moved to New York to get his masters degree at the Manhattan School Of Music where he studied with pianists Kenny Barron and Jason Moran. Interestingly, the new album was workshopped while touring last winter with the band. As you can hear, John composes the band (although I wish John would have allowed more solo space for himself) and as I mentioned in my review, the fidelity of the recording is really good. Finally, it’s rare that a CD is recorded and released in a matter of months. Unlike other releases, jazz and otherwise, there’s often a year or more of mixing, mastering and messing around before an album hits – so this is what John Escreet sounds like right now and I hope this is a pattern he’ll continue to follow. Go to his excellent website – it provide much more info.   www.johnescreet.com


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A master of moods, drummer Manu Katche smoothes out the edges on his third ECM release favoring a cool-blue vibe over the twists and turns that characterized his previous albums, “Neighbourhood” and  “Playground.” Well known on the European scene for more than 25 years, he’s played with Sting’s group, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell and dozens more. Katche makes smart contemporary jazz – his percussive grooves hold sway throughout a pitch perfect set list that seamlessly blends simmering funk (the rhythmically hip track, “Keep On Trippin’”) with melodically engaging instrumentals and a vocal feature, “Stay With You.” Saxophonist Tore Brunborg takes the lead voice on most tracks while pianist/keyboardist Jason Rebello (Sting, Madeleine Peyroux) adds the lyricism. His solo spots, especially on “Shine and Blue” are blissfully in the pocket. Veteran bassist Pino Palladino, guitarist Jacob Young and singer/trumpeter Kami Lyle rounds out the group. Young, a fellow ECM solo artist, has a particularly good feature on “Flower Skin,” his ripe tone and fleshy notes ring solid and true. As if Manu Katche would have it any other way. (11 tracks; 44:38 minutes) www.ecmrecords.com      

Photograph of Manu Katche by Heinz Kronberger

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After releasing two acclaimed big band albums, the singer/songwriter Robin McKelle slips into a little black dress of neo-soul jazz to “Mess Around,” her new album of R&B inflected tunes and the fit couldn’t be finer. She lends her warm, husky voice to a quartet of original compositions that share the floor with hip songs by Leonard Cohen, Doc Pomus, The Bee Gees and the swing tune, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon. It’s no wonder her inspirations include Ray Charles and Etta James; the girl’s got an affinity for the blues. The arrangements are witty (“Eleanor Rigby” is dressed up in James brown rhythms) and the soloists include the debonair saxophonist Houston Person. Two originals, “Until The Day I Die” and “Since I Looked In Your Eyes,” benefit from gutsy solos by guitarist Marvin Sewell (Cassandra Wilson) and they underscore McKelle’s authenticity and commitment to the cause. (11 tracks; 48:26 minutes) www.robinmckelle.com 

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For Dr. Lonnie Smith, the groove reigns supreme. A veteran musician whose playing is as tight as his ever-present turban, Smith sets a new standard for the mighty Hammond B3 on “Spiral,” thanks to a fresh musical partnership with the accomplished guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams, who supplies the rhythmic snap. Sounding stimulated and inspired by these young guys, it’s hard to believe that Smith’s performance could eclipse the fine work on his last album, Rise Up! but it does.

Smith goes back to basics on “Spiral” – he finds meaty grooves in old standards by Frank Loesser and Rodgers and Hart rather than the pop covers of he favored on his earlier CDs. The trio infuses these tunes with rich invention from the second-line pulse of Jimmy Smith’s “Mellow Mood” to the after hours slow grind of Slide Hampton’s “Frame For The Blues.” Kreisberg sets the pace with a pulse-quickening tempo for “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” with Williams following in lockstep. The group trades precise solos with feverish aplomb but it’s Smith who provides the bite with a slew of juicy notes. One more surprise – the band covers pianist Harold Mabern’s “Beehive,” turning it into an exhilarating slice of modern jazz primed for listeners who would otherwise be grooving to Martin, Medeski and Wood. Team Smith doesn’t pull any punches – the notes ricochet off the walls as if syncopated to strobe lights. www.palmetto-records.com  
(8 tracks/49:22 minutes)  


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Organist Lonnie Smith got his start in George Benson’s quartet in the mid 60s and was signed to Blue Note after appearing on saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s famous “Alligator Boogaloo” record. The emphatic “Rise Up!” is Smith’s 3rd album for the Palmetto label and his loose, swinging sound finds an easy jam-band rapport with guitarist Peter Bernstein, alto player Donald Harrison and drummer Herlin Riley. It delivers what you’d expect from a soul jazz acolyte - music that’s replete with ecstatic organ squeals, a shuddering vocal choir, handclaps and cracking percussion. Smith slips easily into a deep groove covering music by The Beatles (“Come Together”), Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”) and The Stylistics (“People Make The World Go Round”) But it’s on his originals like the colorful “Dapper Dan,” Creole-flavored “A Matterapat,” and the other-worldly “Voodoo Doll” where Smith tears it up like he’s the life of the party. (9 tracks/62:14 minutes) 
This review appeared previously in the March 2009 edition of ICON

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Trumpeter Christian Scott is a deliberate musician with a gift for composition as well as confrontation. His fifth record, “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” is a smoker that pays dividends as protest music – his provocative tunes have titles like the bristling “K.K.P.D.” (Ku Klux Police Department) and “Angola, LA and the 13th Amendment” – and they quench a thirst for jazz that’s electrifying, absorbing and guaranteed to move you.  

Recorded last year by the renowned engineer Rudy Van Gelder, Scott consciously sought to evoke the sound and agitated energy of mid-60s Miles Davis, John Coltrane’s Quartet as well as Bob Dylan and Hendrix. It’s mixed like a rock recording, too, with an analogue-like lushness and detail to revel in. The disc kicks off with a spacey basement jam shaped by guitarist Matt Steven’s wiry guitar with a sitar-like flavor coupled with Jamire Williams’ furious wave of drum notes that slowly fade to a chorus of solid beats. Throughout, Scott’s glorious trumpet often recalls the breathy, snake-like charm of Miles and his band ratifies the leader’s intent with instrumental gusto. The pianist, Milton Fletcher, plays with nothing less than a poetic touch as does the tunefully precise bassist, Kris Funn, but it’s drummer Williams who gives the album a riveting pulse.

Scott’s compositions crackle with authenticity and are performed with a Mingus-like restlessness; here’s where a cover of Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” becomes a cultural touchstone for Scott’s generation and the emphatic shouts of defiance on “American’t,” a passionate, bitter anthem, bleed through the confines of the recording booth. Thoughtfully programmed, the tracks are surprisingly accessible and flow with purpose, drawing from classic jazz idioms, hip-hop, rock as well as the music of his birthplace, New Orleans. A serious and important document, YYST doesn’t have an ounce of fat – it’s as satisfying an album as you’ll likely hear this year and squarely defines Scott as the man with the horn and a torchbearer for the future. www.christianscott.net

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JASMINE is a rarity among recent offerings by pianist Keith Jarrett – straight-ahead renderings of classic American songs played with bassist Charlie Haden (whom he last collaborated with 30 years ago) and recorded in the pianist’s home studio without adornment. Jarrett approached the material without preconceptions or rehearsal. It’s an old-school method that few contemporary musicians embrace (pianists Fred Hersch and Frank Kimbrough are exceptions) and the Jarrett-Haden partnership lovingly articulates the beauty and soul of each song with flawless technique and a lot of heart. 

Classics from the past like “For All We Know,” “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out Of My Life” and “Body and Soul” share space with a new one, Joe Sample’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” a magical tune that will only grow in stature as it’s discovered by jazz and pop musicians alike. Jarrett plays with a poignancy and openness that has characterized his recent solo recordings. Notably, Redd Evans and David Mann’s “No Moon At All” has a blissful jauntiness and the standard by Kern/Hammerstein, “Don’t Ever Leave Me” has a lighter-than-air directness. Haden’s touch is profound; his plump bass notes have a full-bodied “woodiness” and in duet with Jarrett, they mingle in a perfect union.  

Liner notes are unusual, too, for ECM recordings and Jarrett’s own explanation on the importance of communicating and sharing music is both obvious and revelatory. He’s also a flag waver for good sound and stresses that this recording be heard on a high-quality system. As Jarrett implores, listen to it at home preferably with someone close to you – to do so reveals eight ballads and love songs played with uncommon clarity and possessed of natural charm. www.ecmrecords.com 


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An album of bold and gratifying swing, “Incorrigible” highlights what a very good band can do when it’s bound together by friendship and a sense of purpose. The guys known as “One For All” are all accomplished solo musicians – the frontline includes trumpeter Jim Rotondi, saxophonist Eric Alexander and trombonist Steve Davis, and the rhythm section is powered by pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. This is their 15th album together and high-quality debut on the Jazz Legacy Productions label (Heath Brothers, Cyrus Chestnut).

The sextet has packed this album with a sonically rewarding blend of straight-ahead originals and one cover, an upended version of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”  Dogged by comparisons to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – the closing tune, “So Soon,” follows the Blakey creed with an infectious beat and a kick ass piano solo – the group embraces the late 50s Blue Note vibe and runs with it. Saxophonist Alexander gets his licks in on the exhilarating title track and Hazeltine’s “Blue For Jose” is steeped with rich solos from trombonist Davis and trumpeter Rotondi. Farnsworth keeps it flowing with his in-the-pocket beats and Webber provides dependable, tuneful support on bass. One For All is a collective of the first order and a tight outfit with grooves to spare and easily recommended. www.jazzlegacyproductions.com  


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On his second solo disc, trombonist Ryan Keberle confidently blows hot and cool on a finely calibrated set of originals, once again convening his eponymously named Double Quartet, anchored by pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Doob. Kerberle’s originals are earthy and blossom with improvisational ingenuity thanks to the harmonic backdrop from a supporting quartet of horns that illuminates Keberle’s sweet, soulful tone. The loping gait that nudges “One Thought At A Time” along is artfully rendered with modernistic percussion and a punchy arrangement. Another good track, “The Slope Of The Blues” may echo Ellington but Keberle fashions a simmering groove for an expansive tune that lets his band strut and preen. Ellington’s own “I Like The Sunrise” is a fine blues where the bass and drums set the tune’s pace and Kimbrough is afforded plenty of solo space – the pianist is without a doubt the record’s MVP. Best of all is George Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” a disarming rendition with shifting time signatures, a few grace notes and plenty of full bore swing.  www.ryankeberle.com


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Singer/songwriter Maria Neckam has a bright, sunny voice well suited to her brand of emo-jazz and like her peers, Gretchen Parlato, Kate McGarry and Rebecca Martin, she eschews standards and songbook covers for a playlist of solid, original tunes.  A New York transplant from Austria, Neckam draws from a circle of friends noted in the liner notes (name checking some of the best jazz musicians on the scene). Here she partners with the busy pianist Aaron Goldberg, a terrific accompanist and an intensely tuneful musician on his own albums (“Home” is his recent and best album), along with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Colin Stranahan who alternates between rock and blues based beats that give Neckam’s songs added oomph. She’s radiantly exuberant on the poppy “Happy Song,” singing with a touch of swagger, “When happiness knocks on your door, you better let it in, take its hand and dance.”  Neckam’s best song and the jazziest in tone and execution is “Fear” and it aligns her voice with saxophonists Lars Dietrich and Samir Zarif over a staccato rhythm propelled by the drums.  Her elastic tell-it-like-it-is vocals give way to an outstanding tenor solo by Zarif who scores with pin wheeling notes and he gives this tune its requisite edge.  www.marianeckam.com

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