JAZZ IN SPACE: November 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Fourplay may be the most stylish band in the jazz-fusion arena and their superb album, “Let’s Touch The Sky,” featuring the group’s new guitarist, Chuck Loeb, has the group firing on all cylinders.

It’s pretty well known that pianist Bob James formed the original band with guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason in 1990.   Ritenour departed after their third chart topping album, and the band recruited bluesy guitarist Larry Carlton for an amazingly fertile 12-year period that found the group collaborating with BabyFace Edmonds, Michael McDonald and Esperanza Spalding while building a repertoire of state-of-the-art compositions. The announcement in April 2010 of Carlton’s resignation turned a potential crisis into an opportunity. Enter Loeb, a solid player with a style that fuses Ritenour’s lush exoticism with Carlton’s penchant for soul n’ twang riffs, and whose own melodic compositions (“Above And Beyond”) suggest a kinship with Pat Metheny. As it turns out, and I think to their surprise, the quartet is whole once again.
“Let’s Touch The Sky” is among Fourplay’s finest hours and places the band at a creative high point. Each Fourplay album typically features a pair of contributions from each member and the quality among the 11 selections is equally shared, but James’ stirring title track, built around a haunting four-note motif and featuring brilliant interplay between the keyboardist and Loeb is worth noting as is Mason’s “Pineapple Getaway,” a jolt of pop perfection. An elegant and funky tribute by James to Hank Jones (“Gentle Giant”) segues into a slick aural travelogue (“A Night In Rio”) – both tunes shine from exemplary playing from East and drummer Mason. Bassist East often doubles as vocalist and scat singer – his original “I’ll Still Be Loving You” is exceptionally appealing, both for its melody and East’s tasty delivery. Fourplay excels at instrumentals but pairing the group with the right singer and material is always a threading the needle proposal. The band accomplishes that on a mighty rendition of “Love TKO” featuring Ruben Studdard – adding him to the mix is sheer inspiration but it’s the pairing of superstar Anita Baker with the band on a smoldering cover of “You’re My Thrill” that provides the album’s biggest “wow” moment.

“Let’s Touch The Sky” is a juggernaut of contemporary music that sets a sophisticated mood and creates a sonic environment that vibrates with vitality (i.e. East’s elastic solo over the shifting rhythm of “Golden Faders”). After 20 years and a dozen albums, Fourplay is still the leader. (11 tracks; 62:39 minutes) www.fourplayjazz.com

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A veteran member of the George Shearing Quintet, vibes player and pianist Ted Piltzecker dives headfirst into a Brazilian flavored set that marries engaging rhythmic interplay to crisp original compositions that ring true for their melodic inventiveness and accessibility. This is feel-good music with bite, highlighted by the percolating rhythm of the title track, a sensitive waltz (“He Sent An Angel”) and the authentic pulse of “Kalunga.” This independently released project is performed by a stellar group of unsung musicians – percussionist Rogeiro Boccato, saxophonist Sam Dillon, bassist Jerad Lippi and Mike Kujawsi on drums. A refreshing rendition of Horace Silver’s, “Nica’s Dream,” serves up an intoxicating beat with a twist of Nino Rota and features a compelling guitarist named Nick Llerandi who nails Piltzecker’s limber arrangement with his gentle, samba-inflected solo. The program lasts a brief 37 minutes but it feels expansive and is masterfully executed. (7 tracks; 37:24 minutes) www.tedvibes.com 

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The compelling title might suggest a future perfect but this gang – a 10 piece jazz ensemble performing for over 20 years together – feeds a voracious need to swing and have a good time. Although they captured the imaginations and many new admirers with their arrangements of Ethiopian songs (“Ethiopiques 20: Either/Orchestra Live In Addis”) from 2005, here the band channels their love for sly tunes with a wink (“The One Of A Kind Shimmy”), hip cocktail jazz (“Beaucoups Kookoo”) and Latin merengue (“Coolcity”). This is lounge music for adults, like Pink Martini but less manic and more nourishing.

Leader and primary composer Russ Gershon steers his solid crew through a diverse course of tunes with solid Afro-Caribbean rhythms at their core. The orchestra plays with tight-as-a-drum precision and there’s no fronting, just solid musicianship and riveting solos that never overstay their welcome. A nimble flow courses throughout, whether combining the dark and dreamy (“Thirty Five”) with the elated grooves that shape “The Petrograd Revision,” or the magnificent “Suriname,” perhaps the most beautiful and artfully played tune on the album. (10 tracks; 77:03 minutes) www.either-orchestra.org www.accuraterecords.com 

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The story is a good one. After many years producing jazz records for the Bethlehem label, ABC-Paramount, Verve and A&M, producer Creed Taylor set up CTI in 1970 to create a hybrid style that bridged fusion and acoustic jazz. It was melodic, despite the spirited soloing, and usually R&B oriented but it caught on in part because Taylor was resolute in combining jazz and commercialism. Critics recoiled; many records sold and careers were launched.

In establishing CTI (and its sister label, Kudu), one of Taylor’s smartest decisions was to employ musicians like Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter, Chet Baker, Milt Jackson and Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as hire young stars like saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr (who caught a break when he was asked to fill in when Hank Crawford skipped a recording session) and 20-something pianist Bob James who settled in as the label’s in-house arranger and keyboardist. Another was having his recording dates engineered by Rudy Van Gelder who created a signature CTI sound (accent on the bass drum, wide stereo soundstage, hyped up bass, strings, percussion and rhythm guitar). Finally, Taylor enlisted photographer Pete Turner whose iconic images graced those gorgeous gatefold record covers and it made CTI product stand out from everyone else.

Since more than 100 CTI recordings are out of print, here we are 40 years later and some smart folks at Sony Masterworks (kudos to producer, Richard Seidel) packaged a celebratory box set that mimics the original gatefold covers, includes a lavish 20 page biography and notes by Dan Ouellette and contains 39 tracks on 4 themed CDs, entitled “Straight Up,” “Deep Grooves/Big Hits,” “The Brazilian Connection,” and “Cool and Classic.” For obsessive listeners with audiophile rigs, all the material here is mastered from the original analog 2-track, ¼” tapes. No remixing has been done. Yay!

The compilation hits on all the signature tunes – Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar” still sounds hot with its fluttery Freddie Hubbard solo and George Benson’s earthy guitar; the great singer Esther Phillip’s gets two tracks that show off her sassy soulfulness; Grover Washington, Jr.’s timeless “Mister Magic”; Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Stone Flower; Bob James “Westchester Lady” and Jim Hall’s incredible “Concierto De Aranjuez,” complete with its astounding Roland Hanna piano solo. Okay, so maybe Ron Burgundy gets a laugh as a jazz flute enthusiast but Hubert Laws produced legendary music for CTI and he gets four tracks  (“Moment’s Notice” with a rapid-fire electric keyboard solo from James), a soulful rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain, a live version of “Pensitiva” from “The San Francisco Concert” and “Pavane” recorded in 1971. Many of the tracks CTI produced were lengthy, allowing artists to stretch out and a handful are included on these discs.

Before Sony purchased it, Columbia reissued various CTI releases on CD sporadically. Columbia’s relationship with Taylor did not end well and his input is nowhere to be found on this set and my guess is legal issues or corporate indifference may be holding up the bulk of the CTI product since only two waves of albums are scheduled for reissue. Some are already out and others are coming in January 2011. Please, sir, can I have some more? One final awesome fact: bassist Ron Carter played on more CTI releases than any other musician (look for his “All Blues” album in the second wave).

As part of the CTI launch, the two-disc release of the complete “The California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium” recorded on July 18, 1971 is an impressive reissue.  It doubles the content of the original 5-song LP and adds new tracks that have never been heard before. With a line-up that includes Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, George Benson, Hank Crawford, Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Hammond, Ron Carter, Billy Cobham and Airto Moreira, this is a dream-come-true release for jazz fans. The sound quality is superb and the music is certifiably classic. (Disc One: 5 tracks; 77:53 minutes / Disc Two: 5 tracks: 76:08 minutes)

For the most exhaustive overview of CTI releases, visit Doug Payne's site: http://www.dougpayne.com/cti.htm



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