JAZZ IN SPACE: April 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011


Trumpeter Taylor Haskins, an authoritative voice on the horn, is a member of bassist Dave Holland’s Grammy©-winning “Overtime” band and has previously made waves on his own (“American Dream,” Sunnyside, 2010.) For his third solo recording of all-original tunes, “Recombination” (19/8 Records) Haskins plugs into electro-sounds tinted with rock-era Miles pyrotechnics and the music buzzes with sonic brilliance (“Clouds From Below Us”), crunchy grooves (“Upward Mobility”) and nifty jazz-pop (“The Shifting Twilight.”) Drummer Nate Smith supplies the loose and quickening pulse an album like this requires. He roots keyboardist Henry Hey, bassist Todd Sickafoose and guitarist Ben Monder firmly in Haskins' futuristic tableau, which blend real and synthetic sounds with astonishing vibrancy.

Haskins' digital tinkering in and outside the studio pays off. The synthesized tunes flatter Haskins' trumpet playing (so effectively on “Passing Through”) and enhance the emotional payoff of his music. The nimble fretwork by Monder is especially fine (“A Lazy Afternoon”) and he complements Haskins' clean, limpid tone and inclination for ear-friendly melodies. A tip of the hat to the visionary graphics – paintings by Catherine Ross and design by Gabriele Wilson – its clever analog motif fits perfectly with the music and it’s the sort of detail that you can’t get from downloading. (12 tracks; 59:06 minutes) www.taylorhaskins.com

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The redoubtable bassist Ben Allison is well known as a bell ringer for jazz, and his creative enthusiasm has spawned a series of intrepid solo recordings as well as a productive NY based jazz collective. For his 10th recording, Allison culls his first collection of covers with “Action-Refraction” (Palmetto Records) and reboots them in wild and wonderful ways, including a switched on version of Samuel Barber’s “St Ita’s Vision” (where Allison is thinking Sun Ra as much as Leontyne Price) and a compellingly reverent remix of Neil Young’s “Philadelphia.”  

As the leader and arranger, Allison expands his palette with his intuitive “electro-acoustic orchestra” – saxophonist/bass clarinetist Michael Blake, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook, drummer Rudy Royston and particularly Jason Lindner on piano and synthesizer, who rocks the sonic trance arrangement of Donny Hathway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Allison’s eloquent liner notes may explain his approach to covering Thelonious Monk (“his music is timeless and perpetually relevant”) and PJ Harvey’s “Missed,” but it’s his clear-eyed articulation of “We’ve Only Just Begun” and a remake of his own, “Broken,” complete with Prince-like guitar licks and Trent Reznor feedback, that makes this album an adventure in sound. At a trim 40+ minutes, the Allison team beautifully networks the concept and its aural pleasures will sustain multiple spins. (7 tracks; 41:22 minutes) 

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Photo: Guy Van de Poel

Like many of his contemporaries Texas born saxophonist/vocalist Samir Zarif isn’t boxed in by tradition, which makes his splendidly realized debut recording, “Starting Point” (Mythology Records) something to talk about. Zarif programs his recording like a suite and it’s clear that he finds sonic quality to be as vital as rhythm and harmony, and the album unfolds with an engaging purpose. A meticulous musician with a gifted ear for composition, much of the album reaches for Trane-like highs with reverential tunes (“Dancing In The Garden Of Dead Roses”) and sinewy horn solos (“Letter To The Brothers”). But his “jazz beyond jazz” approach works best on “Fear and Deceptions,” opening the door for punchy bass notes by Zack Lober and crisp backbeats courtesy of drummers Greg Ritchie and Colin Stranahan. Zarif expertly fuses poetry slam performance art (“The Old Man’s Box”) with spacey pop electronics (“Keep The Faith”) and steps out with a remarkable vocal duet with Maria Neckam on “This Life,” a song that wears the sensitive textures of a Nick Drake tune.  (10 tracks; 57:11 minutes)

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As an acoustic trio, pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz choose harmony over conflict, cultivating endless possibilities as they improvise their way through lyrical passages and peaceful interludes. “Faithful” (ECM) is their third solo album as a group and playing against expectations, the trio gets its groove on, so to speak. Maybe it’s because they’ve played and recorded with fellow label mate, the energetic drummer Manu Katche, but several of this album’s tracks share Katche’s adoration for sparkling percussion and expressive interplay. Paul Bley’s mischievous “Big Foot” is the trio’s standout moment – polyrhythmic beats and deeply satisfying bass feed its momentum. The group doesn’t abandon the atmospherics or the indelible rapport for which they are acclaimed, and the title track (written by Ornette Coleman) sums up what the MW trio does best, which is to coerce sophisticated improvisations out of the subtlest of melodies, sometimes a note at a time.  (10 tracks; 71:48 minutes)

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A Barcelona native, guitarist Dave Juarez wins major points on his debut for Positone Records, an LA based independent label with a dazzling roster of young jazz lions, mostly due to his deep commitment to the band concept and a playbook of super strong compositions. He pulls together a like-minded team – tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist John Escreet, bassist Lauren Falls and drummer Bastian Weinhold – on a collection of fresh tracks that highlight the strengths of each. Blake is the veteran here, having a host of solo recordings and dozens of sideman gigs to his credit, and he gives the album a boost with his scintillating solos. Escreet is an especially communicative player, full of surprise and brilliance, and he doesn’t disappoint whether applying his staccato intensity on “Lonely Brooklyn” or applying a glossy lyricism to “Belleza Anonima.” As the leader, Juarez runs his lines with grace and poetic humility (“The Echo Of Your Smile”) and takes a clever stab at the harmonics on Monk’s “Round Midnight (see title tune). If there’s any criticism, it’s that Juarez is a touch shy, giving too much space to Blake. But all is forgiven listening to Juarez on the moon-kissed “Luna De Barcelona,” a tune that inspires peak performances from his copacetic quintet and features a blissed out solo by the guitarist. (9 tracks; 61:45 minutes)

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For his trio CD, “Noble Path” (Posi-Tone) the Bay area pianist Art Hirahara goes pleasurably old school, with an abundance of catchy, melodic originals. It’s a successful foray into the kind of music that one associates with leaders like Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton or John Hicks, and it’s clear that Hirahara holds a deep respect for musicians that ply the jazz trio tradition. Bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Dan Aran, both rhythm masters in their own right, provide exemplary support on inspired originals (“Stood Down”) and dazzling covers (“All Or Nothing At All,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.”) Hirahara has a deft technique that memorably crowns his originals and his fleet finger play positively shines on the title track. But you can sense this working group’s own satisfaction when bopping through the changes on Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” or feeling the love from the music on Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”  (12 tracks; 63:16 minutes)

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Noah Haidu is a pianist who endows his debut, “Slipstream" (Posi-Tone) with a no-nonsense, straight-ahead groove, and it’s some of the best group jazz you can hear in 2011, thanks to a line-up of boffo contemporary players -- trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, two neo-traditionalists who always blow hot and cool; bassist Chris Haney and drummer John Davis keep things tight and tuneful, and the great stickman, Willie Jones III, kicks it out on drums for three tracks.  Haidu boldly demonstrates his affection for the great acoustic jazz groups of the 50’s and 60’s, but his charts and adroit technique (“Break Tune”) shout modern jazz. The pianist proves that he’s an enterprising improviser, from the jaunty “Soulstep” and the trippy ballad, “Float,” to the romp and circumstance of “Just One Of Those Things.” It’s affirming to hear a pianist who’s chock full of ideas, with a stand out quintet that never outshines the leader.  (8 tracks; 49:19 minutes)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011


It’s getting tougher to label Gretchen Parlato as a jazz singer and that’s probably by design. She’s among a new breed of singer/songwriters like Esperanza Spalding whose foundation of jazz and improvisational technique is also fertilized with pop, soul and hip-hop. Her third album, “The Lost And Found” (ObliqSound) finds her among musical friends like pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott.

Most tracks take advantage of Parlato’s distinctive whispery voice -- she coos with a feathery lightness and the musicians comply with a gauzy, after-hours vibe. Drummer Scott is a master of the staccato beats that jazz up sharp covers of “Holding Back The Years” and Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say,” but it’s pianist Eigsti, a distinguished soloist, who pumps up Parlato’s catchy melodies (“How We Love” and the gorgeous “Better Than”) with his thrilling acoustic and electric keyboard plays. The album’s too long by a couple tracks but stick around for her Stevie Wonder-ish “Circling” and the nocturnal vibe she and the band conjure for Bill Evan’s “Blue In Green,” sung to lyrics by Meredith D’Ambrosio. Co-produced by Robert Glasper. (15 tracks; 62:31 minutes)

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After 30 years the Yellowjackets still have plenty to say. “Timeline” (Mack Avenue Records) reunites the band’s longtime members –the de facto leader and keyboardist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and drummer Will Kennedy – who maintain both their chemistry and jovial jam approach that smoothly integrate shifting time signatures and funky revival tent licks. There’s even a cameo by a former band member, guitarist Robben Ford, on the sleek Ferrante/Haslip tune, “Magnolia.” As contemporary jazz, you’d be hard-pressed to discount the modern bop pleasures of “Why Is It” or the electro-acoustic buzz of “Tenacity.” The band remains stubbornly hard to categorize and they don’t pander to trends – “Timeline” isn’t as catchy as the more commercial “Blue Hats” album (WB, 1997) or their collaborations with Bobby McFerrin. But that musical integrity is what keeps the Yellowjackets soulful and real.  Although personnel has shifted over time, this solid incarnation remains expansive in their musical vision and they will definitely leave old and new listeners digging on their template of jazz fusion and loose-limbed grooves. (11 tracks; 62:15 minutes)

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Less a tribute recording than a jumping off point for pianist Eric Reed’s immutable talent, “The Dancing Monk”(Savant Records), is proof positive that there’s limitless invention in the music of Thelonious Monk. Armed with a perceptive trio, Reed’s nuanced gospel-tinged riffs light up swinging versions of “Eronel” and “Pannonica,” each punctuated by Ben Wolfe’s just-right bass lines. A cluster of introspective ballads (“Reflections,” “Light Blue,” “Ruby, My Dear”) threaten to dampen Reed’s program, but the insertion of clever quotes, like when Reed slips in a bar from “Everything Happens To Me,” keeps drawing you back into the music. Reed discovers a breezy samba in “Ugly Beauty” and turns the sole original – the title cut – into a giddy hard-hitting romp thanks to drummer McClenty Hunter.  In the liner notes, Reed points to Monk’s tenacity to swing, and “The Dancing Monk” underscores this commitment through Reed’s blue-eyed notes crossed with jump-up melodies. (10 tracks; 49:33 minutes)

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Here’s a Latin jazz record with an abundance of sizzle and invention. Arriving on the heels of Joe Lovano’s tribute to Charlie Parker, “Bird Songs” (Blue Note, 2011), saxophonist T.K. Blue also takes his inspiration from the Parker songbook and breaths new swing (along with samba, waltz and Caribbean rhythms) into a familiar playlist and a pair of engrossing originals. Blue’s vision is pleasingly eclectic on the very fine “Latin Bird” (Motema), his ninth album, thanks to a tight band -- pianist Theo Hill, bassist Essiet Okon Essiet, and the nimble percussionist Roland Guerrero who also plays congas, along with trap drummers Willie Martinez and Lewis Nash. Like Parker, Blue is enamored with harmonic progression and these tunes flexibility proves how innovative they still are. The saxophonist yields ample solo space to Hill on a lush reading of Monk’s “Round Midnight” and incorporates sparkling multi-hued rhythms on “Donna Lee” and “Si Si,” the latter featuring the one-of-a-kind trombonist Steve Turre. (11 tracks; 52:22 minutes)

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Bassist Robert Hurst has a big round tone that’s acoustically sweet and resoundingly grounded, and although you can hear him on many recordings by Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Diana Krall and Chris Botti (he was also part of The Tonight Show band for more than ten years), he’s been “off the grid” awhile as far as solos recordings go. Two new albums by Hurst (on his own, Bebob Records) seek to mitigate his absence, but it’s something of a surprise that the more recently recorded “Bob Ya Head,” turns out to be a jarring mix of pop, jazz and protest music flavored with hip-hop and African rhythms, in contrast to the solid and far more effective live date with pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Dave.

“Unrehurst, Volume 2” (5 tracks; 69:51 minutes) is an accurate pun since the trio had no rehearsal prior to the recording date at the jazz club, Smoke, in March 2007, but the music – two standards (Cole Porter’s “I Love You” and Monk’s “Monk’s Dream”) and three originals – is sublime. The tunes get extended straight-ahead workouts, several stretching past the 15-minute mark, and it’s a pleasure to hear Glasper dig deeply on his solo for the tune, “Truth Revealed.” In fact, each player fires on all cylinders and there’s not a wasted note or muted moment among them. Unlike the well-intentioned music on “Bob Ya Head,” this live date grabs you with quality and quantity. The easy going closer, “Bob Blues,” is boosted by Hurst’s depth and polish, and while I understand a musician’s prerogative to stretch out in new directions, “Unrehurst” is the fulfilling entrée compared to the iffy dessert that is “Bob Ya Head.” (13 tracks; 46:26 minutes)

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The Cookers come out swinging hard on “Cast The First Stone” (Plus Loin Music),  the first track on their album of the same name. It’s a robust, formidable expression of talent and post bop fervor – the band’s name comes from Freddie Hubbard’s 1965 Blue Note live release, “Night Of The Cookers.” This band has a righteous roster – the front line is comprised of Billy Harper on tenor sax, Craig Handy on alto sax, and two trumpeters, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss. The rhythm section is no less esteemed with George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums. Plus, the Coltrane-inspired Azar Lawrence, a shrewd saxophonist capable of harmonic and tonal somersaults, sits in for four of the seven tracks.

As a septet, all veterans of the 60s save for Weiss and Handy, they move easily between the gritty and lyrical. Pianist Cables binds “Peacemaker” and especially, “Looking For The Light” with seductive comping and sensitive solos. The pick hit is definitely “Croquet Ballet,” which soars on a memorable theme and prescient exchanges between the band. Hardly a throwback to the sounds made popular by Lee Morgan, Hubbard and Blakey, this collective has, as Weiss points out, a “play hard and mean it” ethic that doesn’t disappoint and you can’t begrudge them for keeping this hardcore jazz sound alive. (7 tracks; 61:21 minutes) 

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Jamaican born pianist Monty Alexander is well known for his two-fisted lyricism and an arresting technique that combines intensity with effusive swing. A prodigious player with over 62 released CDs to his credit, Frank Sinatra and nightclub owner Jilly Rizzo originally hired Alexander when he moved to the states at seventeen, nearly 50 years ago. “Uplift” (JLP Records) is a collection of personally selected concert performances by Alexander from the last three years, most featuring bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Herlin Riley. Nearly every tune intersect at the avenues of swing and soul, highlighted by “Come Fly With Me,” “Django” and a pair of originals, an Ahmad Jamal-styled “Renewal” and a gospel-dusted “Hope.” It’s consistently compelling, and it makes you realize that anything Alexander plays is bound to come up aces. (10 tracks; 63:02 minutes) 

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