JAZZ IN SPACE: August 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010


Esperanza Spalding is a marketer’s dream with built-in crossover appeal – her stylish ads for Banana Republic catch the eye, appearances on David Letterman’s show and Jimmy Kimmel Live raise her street cred, and features in Glamour and Teen Vogue create a buzz. In 2010, Oprah’s magazine listed her as a “Woman On The Rise” and proof of her exacting work ethic, artistic ambition and confidence can be found in her candid, high profile piece in the March 15th edition of The New Yorker. And she’s played at the White House, twice.
Regardless, Spalding is a seriously good bassist, vocalist and composer, and she artfully balances these prodigious gifts on her sophomore recording, “Chamber Music Society” (Heads Up).  Spalding and producer Gil Goldstein maintain a classical theme, employing strings to complement most tunes. Her voice lithe and certain on the lead off tune, “Little Fly,” Spalding sets her original music to William Blake’s poem and like a siren song, you’re helplessly in thrall of the words and her music. Latin percussion seamlessly merges with strings, especially when Spalding takes a bow to her bass on “Chacarera.”  She sings with dramatic flair on “Wild Is The Wind,” underscored by pianist Leo Genovese’s melodica, which repurposes the tune as a sultry tango. Another highlight is “What A Friend,” a tune that sounds like something Wayne Shorter could have recorded and it benefits from Spalding’s sunny vocalese and keyboard accents. Her lovely voice duet with the intriguing Gretchen Parlato on a resplendent version of Antonio Jobim’s “Inútil Paisagem,” only confirms the hype surrounding Spalding.

The album’s vibe reflects her multi-cultural POV as much as the idea that jazz can be organically comprised of classical motifs, R&B, wordless melodies, folk and world rhythms. To that end, drummer Terri Lynne Carrington and percussionist Quintino Cinalli complete the quartet that brings Spalding’s vivid music to life.  (11 tracks; 56:22 minutes)  www.esperanzaspalding.com

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Just holding the incredibly beautiful textural packaging of a Winter & Winter recording is like fondling an expensive wallet made of the finest leather – you’re predisposed to feeling enriched by whatever is on the CD.

In the case of Theo Bleckmann, calling him a vocalist doesn’t seem to do justice to his art. Using the unlikeliest of objects as instruments – hand-held fans, water bottles and tongue drums, finger cymbals, chimes and shakers, Bleckmann creates without interruption and this recording, made at a remote monastery in Switzerland chosen for its acoustics and natural reverberations, is mostly an unedited on-the-spot performance. Sound and open space are building blocks for songs derived from poetry, esoteric texts or simple from gentle improvisations, and they’re held firmly together by Bleckmann’s amazing voice choreography.  On “I Hear A Rhapsody,” one of two standards on the album, Bleckmann’s voice floats in the ether pausing for a brief interlude of a melodica – a kind of small accordion – before returning with a haunting yet gorgeous turn for the chorus. In between Bleckmann’s remarkable original works, you’ll hear a straightforward rendition of James Taylor’s “Lonesome Road” where he uses the sounds of his footsteps for percussion, and another standard, Comes Love,” where he accompanies himself on Indonesian frog buzzer.

Bleckmann’s facility with sound, some of which you’ve never heard before, roots him in a post-modern category that’s jazz-centric while also reaching for something beyond. What you hear is on “I Dwell In Possibility” is magical in the extreme. (15 tracks: 53:03 minutes)  (photo by Susie Knoll)

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Judging from his seventh and most recent recording, one could say that pianist Jimmy Amadie is one of the unsung greats of jazz. He has a natural ability to find the swing in any standard and the right emotional pitch of a ballad. He puts those gifts to use on “Kindred Spirits” (TP Recordings) a rollicking but attenuated set of swinging originals that pair Amadie’s trio with the well-known saxophonists, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Lew Tabakin.

Having found success in the 50s and 60s by playing with Woody Herman and Mel Torme, Amadie was derailed by tendonitis in his hands, which removed him from the scene until decades later. He began recording again in 1995, slowly working through his intensely painful physical condition, and made a series of outstanding recordings that peaked with his “The Philadelphia Story,” a collaborative effort from 2007 that teamed the pianist with Benny Golson, Randy Brecker and Tabakin.

“Spirits” shows Amadie in fine form. Listening to him play on “What Now” is to hear an artist in full command of his gifts as a composer and musician. His robust solos brim with charm and musicality. He has a style that’s effervescent, as when he comps behind Tabakin’s flute on “Blues For Thee ’DV’” with a youthful bounce. Another percolating tune, “I Want To Be Happy” with Lee Konitz, plays like a musical conversation between two old friends and rightly concludes with the saxophonist’s vocal exclamation, “hot!” But the highlight is “Life Is Worth Living,” a beautiful tune showcasing Joe Lovano’s sumptuous tenor and a note perfect Amadie solo that’s the model of urbanity. Amadie’s trio includes Bill Goodwin on drums and bassist Tony Merino (whose walking bass kills on Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.”) Bassist Steve Gilmore also takes a turn on two tracks. Amazingly, other recurring health concerns necessitated that Amadie record each track in one take. Now that’s a lesson in perseverance and an example of a consummate musicianship. Either way, “Kindred Spirits” is a grand accomplishment. (8 tracks; 54:11 minutes)  www.jimmyamadie.com 

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Thursday, August 26, 2010


Fred Hersch, the renowned jazz pianist and composer, has always celebrated melody and rhythm in his playing but lately his music, in solo, duet and trio settings, sounds more assured and his new album, “Whirl,” (Palmetto Records) has a glow of perfection. Working in tandem with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, two versatile musicians with an arsenal of ideas, Hersch lays out the welcome mat with an enchanting rendition of “You’re My Everything,” dedicated to his partner, Scott Morgan. His fingers touch the piano keys just so, exposing the tender parts of the song while celebrating the uplift that the melody conveys. Hersch is a certain and steady improviser, peeling back layers of a tune as on the evocative original, “Snow Is Falling,” where the trio reveal the nuances that exist within its pretty waltz-like melody.

But in the months leading up to the recording of “Whirl,” Hersch endured a debilitating bout of pneumonia that put him into a coma and nearly finished him. Hersch has been HIV+ for the past 24 years, originally diagnosed in 1986, and we learn in the recent Dutch documentary, “Let Yourself Go: The Lives Of Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch,” that he approached his recordings and concerts as if each was going to be the last one. In 1994, he came out as a gay man publicly, putting a unique face of an artist living with AIDS (and what that means being a jazz musician). As evidenced in the affecting profile of Hersch by David Hajdu in The New York Times (linked here), he fights this epic battle in his body daily.

"Whirl" is a highlight in the astonishing life (so far) of Fred Hersch. His music and recorded works have always been vital, but here the music has a profound emotional rhythm. The album is perfectly programmed and paced – along the way, we’re treated to the fun and difficult to play Hersch original “Skipping,” a heartfelt Brazilian habanera called “Mandevilla” and a Paul Motian tune (“Blue Midnight”) that Hersch learned for his gig with the drummer at the Village Vanguard. Two revelations at the record’s end – a bouncy Jaki Byard tune that swings with righteous purpose and “Still Here,” a lyrical tribute to one of Hersch’s strongest influences, Wayne Shorter. To top it off, the sound recording by James Farber is meticulous and warmly captures the immediacy of the trio.  (10 tracks; 56:10 minutes) www.fredhersch.com

(The pianist maintains an exemplary website. Also, the documentary is must viewing. Click on the title for more information. This review of Fred Hersch is modified from one that appeared in the August 2010 issue of ICON magazine).

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I confess to having déjà vu when I’ve listened to George Duke’s recent recordings but that’s not a bad thing – with Duke, there’s comfort in the grooves he produces no matter how familiar.  

As Quincy Jones is to pop, Duke is to jazz and R&B – his skill at assembling first-class session players on projects for artists like Dianne Reeves, Anita Baker and Dee Dee Bridgewater is as refined as his production standards. The polish of Duke’s style is fully evident on “Déjà Vu” (Heads Up), a slick tour-de-force where Duke reboots some his past – think spacey synthesizers, deeply funky bass lines, exaggerated percussion and knock out soloing. His dutiful vocals carry the bounce on “You Touched My Brain” and fuel the retro new-jack swing on “6 O’clock Revisited.” But its Duke’s keyboard work that remains vital and engaging to the core, particularly on the instrumental cuts “Oh, Really” and “What Goes Around Comes Around.” All ten tracks are originals with strong contributions from trumpeter Oscar Brashear on the Miles Davis tribute, “Ripple Time,” flutist Hubert Laws and two under-the-radar appearances by trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Duke’s been doing his own thing for the last 40 years and “Déjà vu” is a perfect soul-jazz chill out album with more than a hint of nostalgia. (10 tracks; 55:55 minutes) www.georgeduke.com

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Pianist Bob Mamet may have sealed his reputation in the 90s as a tastemaker on collaborations with Larry Carlton, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright and David Benoit – smooth operators all – but in his current post as a leader with bassist Darek Oles (Brad Mehldau) and drummer Joe LaBarbera (Bill Evans), Mamet strikes gold on ten vibrant originals that are as good-natured as they are dynamic.

With refreshing brevity, Mamet wastes no time digging into the music and not a note he plays is wasted. Touching all the bases, the title track and “Cats On The Roof” are solid soul-jazz swingers with endearing melodies confidently played by Mamet. “Venice Waltz” has a cadence that Vince Guaraldi could have constructed while “Bob’s Blues” and “Keziah” swing with joyful abandon. While Mamet may evoke other players, Gene Harris often comes to mind, his resonant tunes have an immediacy all their own. There is plenty of rhythmic invention and the sonic quality packs a satisfying punch.  (10 tunes; 39:12 minutes)  www.bobmamet.com

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Gifted trumpeter, composer and educator, Pharez Whitted wastes no time establishing a strong melodic hook for the tunes. On soulful swingers like “The Truth Seeker,” a go-getter that sets a high bar for modern swing, Whitted launches a deep front-line groove with saxophonist Eddie Bayard and augments it with the swirling, soulful keyboards of Ron Perillo, supple bassist Dennis Carroll and the solid drummer, Greg Artry – cream-of-the-crop players on the mid-west jazz scene. The best-known musician and a co-star of sorts on the record is guitarist Bobby Broom who plays in his deeply satisfying Chicago blues style, and he’s the keystone on this great-sounding recording of contemporary bop.

Freddie Hubbard may be an obvious influence, but Whitted has a sleek, rounded tone that is uniquely his and it dazzles through a combination of virtuosity and technique, evident on the Art Blakey-ish “Brother Thomas” and the chill-out title tune (with its fat electric piano chords courtesy of Perillo). Listening to him play the sunny ballad, “Until Tomorrow Comes” or the upbeat “Our Man Barack” – there’s not a weak number in the bunch -- I’m convinced that Pharez Whitted can be included on the short list of first rate Chicago jazzers like Von Freeman, pianist Lawrence Hobgood and singers Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber, and not only because this recording has been a fixture on my home system and car for past three months. I could hear Whitted’s greatness on the first spin of this fine CD. (11 tracks; 71:11 minutes)   www.owlstudios.com

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I love unexpected essays like this, especially since it appears in the NYTimes Book Review. Me? I prefer red wine over white, dirty vodka martinis and Hendricks gin (that's the one flavored with cucumber and it's delicious). In college, a friend and I imagined we fit in among the raconteurs at the Duplex and Marie's Crisis in the West Village where we would drink gimlets like background extras in "Breakfast At Tiffany's." Good times. The essay, by writer Geoff Nicholson links right here.

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Monday, August 2, 2010


There’s a lot of accessible, high quality jazz recording going down on the West Coast this year – music from trumpeter Ian Carey and vocalist Gail Pettis are just two shining examples and both released A+ recordings in 2010. For the sheer enjoyment I’ve had listening to him, I’ll add Bay area guitarist George Cotsirilos whose sophomore recording, “Past Present,” stands out for several reasons – the trio is beautifully rendered in the studio, it has neither fluff nor fussiness, and all the tunes, including standards and six originals, are musically and emotionally expressive. Cotsirilos has played and performed for over twenty years and a member of the popular quartet, The San Francisco Nighthawks. Accompanied by bassist Robb Fisher (Cal Tjader) and drummer Ron Marabuto (Tommy Flanagan), Cotsirilos embarks on a set of upbeat, swinging tunes that spotlight both his nimble chops and compositional strengths. The easy-going gait on the title track exemplifies the remarkable proficiency of this great trio and overall, the set is elevated by Cotsirilos’ unfettered lyricism. (10 tracks; 58:17 minutes) The excellent OA2 Records website is linked here. 

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Producer Russell Ferrante (Yellowjackets) enlists three jazz heavyweights, drummer Peter Erskine, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard and bassist Tony Dumas, to play as equals with the remarkably gifted Japanese-American pianist and arranger, Hiro Sekine, on her debut release, “A-mé,” (“Rain”). A modern traditionalist well versed in the styles of Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, Sekine refreshes the jazz standard by Gigi Gryce, “Minority,” by darkening its melody and its dramatic possibilities, and she playfully juggles the time signature on “There Is No Greater Love,” allowing both tunes to blossom anew. Her love and enjoyment in arranging jazz standards is obvious – she likens it to trying on new clothes, contrasting colors and textures while finding what looks fresh and works best. Her original pieces, especially “Little Monster” and the title track are rich with invention and musical interplay. The fine band includes trumpeter John Daversa and trombonist Bob McChesney but Sekine more than holds her own among these established musicians, playing with zeal and swinging in style. (10 tracks; 66:52 minutes)  www.sekaimusic.com 

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Her name may not be as easily recognized as her idols, Elis Regina or Gal Costa, the reigning voices of Brazilian jazz and pop in the 60’s and 70’s, but since relocating to this country in 1980, the Brazilian singer known as Kenia has established herself as an authentic performer of her native land’s sambas and bossa nova rhythms. Her 2008 recording traded on this reputation – “Simply Kenia” (Mooka Records) was a revered set of lesser-known Brazilian gems along with a few American songbook standards that highlighted the singer’s impeccable phrasing. The follow-up is a tribute to the late composer, Dorival Caymmi, and his songs turn out to be a perfect match for Kenia’s liquid-smooth vocals and incomparable artistry. Caymmi influenced generations of bossa nova performers, notably Joao Gilberto, with well-known tunes like the bubbly “Doralice,” and “Samba da Minha Terra,” both included here. Kenia’s vocal agility and confident delivery are well-matched to Caymmi’s enduring music – not only is she in rare form on his effervescent and timeless originals, she sparkles on a childhood favorite, “Roda Piao,” (once recorded by Carmen Miranda) and injects an honest romanticism into “And Roses and Roses,” the sole track with English lyrics. (15 tracks; 50:13 minutes)  www.mookarecords.com


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