JAZZ IN SPACE: February 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Peter Eldridge is an exceptional singer/songwriter, a rare breed who makes honest-to-goodness adult music that’s not only hip, but also entertaining. His hummable melodies have a kinship with the pop/jazz of Steely Dan; indeed, his lyrics are just about as wry as Donald Fagen’s. Yet, Eldridge stands on his own terra firma on “Mad Heaven” (Palmetto Records) a sonic pick-me-up of jocular tunes and sunny Brazilian pop covers that are as juicy as a pomegranate martini. As an ace pianist and arranger - he's also a member of the groups, New York Voices and Moss - Eldridge calls upon guitarist Keith Ganz, bassist Tim Lefebrve, drummer Ben Whitman and percussionist James Shipp to inflate his jazzy tracks with fluid accompaniment and bubbly rhythm. His particularly clever “Charmer” spotlights the lush background harmonics of Lauren Kinham and Kate McGarry and his resplendent piano solo is too cool for school. In fact, a handful of Eldrige’s elegant constructions seem destined to become standards – but only if they’re played like “Buffet Philosophy,” a funny tune about consumerism (and nutrition) gone awry, where Eldridge laments what $6.95 buys, and sings

…oversize sweatshirts, mumus, Sansabelt slacks; it’s a who’s who of heart attacks…we’ve got three hours to sit back and relax.

 Yes, “Mad” is a little retro but it’s one of a few contemporary CDs that you’ll love from beginning to end.  (12 tracks; 60 minutes)

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Photo: Jimmy Katz
Pianist Vijay Iyer’s “Tirtha” (ACT Music + Vision), which is a Saskrit word meaning a holy place centered around a pond, lake or stream where the water is also considered holy buzzes with multilayered sounds and plays like a particularly evocative soundtrack. With Prasanna on guitar and voice, and Nitin Mitta on tabla, Iyer composes an even-tempered tableau of music, perhaps spiritual in connotation but airy and mystical in its execution. 

The tunes, especially “Duality” and “Tribal Wisdom” are naturally propulsive with escalating grooves and circular rhythms that float freely, moving back and forth between players. The tracks have metaphorical titles like “Abundance" and “Gauntlet,” but they gleam with an after-hours pulse and while the dynamics are restrained, Iyer lays down memorably moody solos that expand and contract over the steady thrum of his band mates. Recorded in 2008, “Tirtha” may not make a major statement but it sounds every bit as current as Iyer’s previous outings albeit with a metaphysical edge. (9 tracks; 60:38 minutes)

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Two recordings from Ron Carter and Hubert Laws that have never seen daylight on CD before have been reissued under Sony’s continuing “CTI Records 40th Anniversary” celebration, saluting storied producer Creed Taylor. “All Blues” is an undeniable classic. The Ron Carter date, from 1973, features Roland Hanna on piano, Billy Cobham on drums, an appearance by Richard Tee, and the great Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone. Carter’s compositions are always classy and soulful, and he effortlessly parses licks of funk and R&B as part of the requisite CTI sound, but here the master bassist stays true to his calling, with his signature stretched bass notes and straight-ahead jazz grooves. (6 tracks; 36:05 minutes)


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After early dates for the Atlantic label, listeners couldn’t get enough of the jazz flute of Hubert Laws, whose fame exploded once he joined CTI. “Morning Star” (1972) is as hip and memorable as anything he did, from the lush Don Sebesky arrangement to a funky cover of “Where Is The Love.” His rendition of “Amazing Grace” was always a crowd pleaser in concert but this 2011 NEA Jazz Master honoree and 2010 Downbeat Flutist of the Year winner played it here first. (6 tracks; 35:52 minutes)

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We’ve come a long way since John Coltrane shot “Chim Chim Cheree” out of his horn with his galvanizing rendition on “The John Coltrane Quartet Plays” album (Impulse! 1965). “Everybody Wants To Be A Cat” (Disney Pearl Series) invites a who’s who of jazz musicians and singers to take a crack at the Disney songbook and the results are as stellar as the music.

The best tracks are from trumpeter Roy Hargrove who takes the lead on the title cut, a tune from “The Aristocats.” He pounces over a groovy swing beat and shadow boxes notes against the Technicolor solo by his pianist, Jonathan Batiste. The magisterial Dave Brubeck (is this guy really 90?) goes at it with his trio on “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” a roiling tour-de-force complete with signature rhythmic shifts and ¾ time swing. Violinist Regina Carter, saxophonist Joshua Redman, vocalist Roberta Gambarini and jazz singer Dianne Reeves each shine in their element on their respective tracks. But it’s the animated tunes by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (“Feed The Birds”) and The Bad Plus (“Gaston”) that defy categorization, weaving intervallic improvisation and aggressive dissonance to color outside the lines. Then again, recent Grammy® winning bassist Esperanza Spalding, who takes on “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” refashions the essential melodic element of the song and turns it into sonic aphrodisiac making it the sexiest soundtrack you’ll ever associate with Disney. (13 tracks; 65:17 minutes) 

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Fuzzy Music may be the name of veteran drummer Peter Erskine’s independent label, but the recordings he makes are crystal clear on several fronts. There’s no doubt that Erskine is qualified to be called legendary, having contributed his percussive magic to over 500 dates since he got his start with the Stan Kenton band back in 1972. That’s in addition to a solid solo career (recording for Denon and ECM) and running Fuzzy since the early 90’s, where his label produces very good trio recordings, live gigs and big band dates with an emphasis on strong compositions, tight interplay and spotlighting under appreciated as much as well known talent.

The elegant and inventive pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles along with the liquid tenor of saxophonist Bob Mintzer give “Standards 2: Movie Music” its heart and soul, and together with Erskine’s subtle fills and hushed cymbal rides, breathes smooth swing and fresh life into this music. Familiarity provides the hook – themes from “West Side Story,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “Gone With The Wind” rubs elbows with standards like Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” and “I Concentrate On You,” and it’s Pasqua (also featured on the first “Standards” album) who delivers the grace notes. His improvisations have a suppleness and beauty that confound as to why he’s not better known. As producer, Erskine lets “Standards 2” come into its own – it’s impressionistic jazz with silky arrangements bathed in golden hues. Audiophile alert: the recording itself sounds breathtaking, with astonishing detail and three-dimensional soundscape. (10 tracks; 59:45 minutes)  www.fuzzymusic.com

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The inimitable crooner Freddy Cole, the very definition of urbanity and suave, has had the luck and good fortune to have been consistently recorded since the early 90’s. Not by choice is Cole a late bloomer – he’s 80 now -- but it’s taken the special partnership between the singer and producer Todd Barkan to reveal the full measure of Cole’s talent. Cole is a subtle showman; having honed a unique sound that’s relaxed and laid back, though never dull.

On “Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B” (High Note), the cosmos align for the singer by way of concept, material, accompaniment and flow. Cole’s connection with the late, great Billy Eckstine is personal – he was both a friend and a contemporary of Cole’s brother, Nat. Here, his honeyed voice reveals a trace of grit and the presence of wisdom, and the way that he “talk sings” the lyrics to “Tender Is The Night,” and “Cottage For Sale” only make these well-worn standards sound more honest and authentic. Equal justice is accorded to a swinging “Jelly, Jelly” (a big hit for Eckstine), “Ma, She’s Makin’ Eyes At Me” and a jaunty “To Be Or Not To Be In Love.” Cole’s vocals are nestled in cozy arrangements courtesy of guitarist Randy Napoleon and pianist John Di Martino, while Houston Person sends up billowy clouds of sound on his meaty tenor sax solos.

Considering his discography as a whole suggests that Cole may be the best male jazz singer of the last 15 years, and this recording in particular is highly recommended. (12 tracks; 60:46)

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