JAZZ IN SPACE: June 2011

Sunday, June 26, 2011


from left: McClenty Hunter, Benito Gonzalez,
Stan Killian, Jeremy Pelt, Corcoran Holt.
Photo by Wayne Tucker.
“Unified” (Sunnyside) is a good name for a great album and it’s one of the most perfectly balanced, thoughtfully produced jazz recordings I’ve heard in a while. Texas born, New York-based tenor saxophonist Stan Killian brings together a group of synchronous musicians on his incisive third album, surrounding himself with a boss line-up that includes alto saxophonist David Binney and trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Jeremy Pelt, who individually impress on Killian’s neo-classic charts with extraordinary skill and relentless swing. The tune “Twin Dark Mirrors” captures the retro Blue Note vibe that illuminates this album, as does a tribute tune to a legendary drummer (“Elvin’s Sight”) that encapsulates Elvin Jones’s style with a Latin tinge. Killian’s band alternates between two bassists, Bryan Copeland and Corcoran Holt, and two drummers, Darrell Green and McClenty Hunter, and is anchored by the superb Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez whose accompaniment and tuneful solos gives Unified its soulful pulse. There are plenty of stout, contemporary melodies (“Center,” “Eternal Return,” “Windows Of Time”), a deeply felt ballad that is the title track—and moments that soar, chiefly a feisty cutting contest between Killian and Hargrove on “Isosceles.” But it’s Killian’s clear-eyed sense of purpose that sculpt his compositions along with his smooth, sinewy tenor—proof enough that this intrepid saxophonist is a force to reckon with. (7 tracks; 51:55 minutes) www.stankillian.com

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Bruce Barth is a pianist of uncommon musicality inasmuch as he can find the innate swing in any tune or musical concept, whether accompanying Tony Bennett or leading his own bands. Apart from a dozen of his own albums, he’s performed on more than 100 other recordings. If you don’t know Barth, “Live At Smalls” (smallsLIVE) is an essential starting point and a primer for modern jazz trio records. This pitch-perfect set dates from September 2010 and by natural occurrence, it’s utterly free of pretense or swagger. Those are qualities that set Barth apart from other pianists and here, in lockstep with bassist Vicente Archer and the amazing drummer Rudy Royston, Barth lays out a melodic program distinguished by his compelling originals, expressive interplay and plenty, plenty soul. Tunes like “Oh, Yes I Will,” “Almost Blues” and, particularly “Afternoon In Lleida,” bubble and pop with affecting rhythm. He sticks with a blues vamp here and applies a gospel undercurrent there, all of it swathed in good feelings. Notably, Archer contributes a beautiful solo on “Peaceful Place,” and Royston sparkles on his kit just about everywhere. Thanks to the transparency of the recording (every note and nuance is definite, as is the distinct opening of a can of soda at the start of “Good Morning Heartache”) Barth has been documented for the ages and his “Live At Smalls” is exceptional from the first note to the last. (9 tracks; 66:03 minutes)  www.brucebarth.com www.smallslive.com

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If you appreciate jazz standards and George Gershwin tunes performed with peerless élan, you should definitely know about the pianist and singer Barbara Carroll. She got her start in the late ‘40s on legendary 52nd Street, the home to America’s jazz hot spots, playing alternating sets with Dizzy Gillespie’s band at a club called the Downbeat. Ironically, the recording that is “How Long Has This Been Going On” (Harbinger Records) was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (the jazz club at Jazz At Lincoln Center) in March 2010, and this quartet date reveals a still vital artist who knows how to charm a crowd with both song and sophistication.

Joining Ms. Carroll is the flawless bassist, Jay Leonhart, along with Alvin Atkinson on drums, and Ken Peplowski on tenor sax and clarinet. There’s an obvious dynamism that occurs between the pianist and Peplowski and it juices the set immeasurably, especially on the five-tune Gershwin medley that grounds the recording. From the bounce of “Fascinating Rhythm” to a jam-like “I Got Rhythm,” this pair playfully scampers around one another, weaving notes and counter melodies with aplomb. Unlike her previous recording (2008’s "Something To Live For"), which included Ms. Carroll accompanying herself on vocals for much of that album, here she limits herself only to one—the title tune. With a bewitching combination of song and expressive storytelling, she summons a magical moment when Peplowski underscores the pianist’s solo with his soft, breathy tenor ala Ben Webster, and visions of New York as filmed by Woody Allen at twilight dance in your head. (10 tracks; 53:22 minutes) www.barbaracarrolljazz.com

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“Time Together” (Shanachie) confirms Michael Franks’s standing among artists like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and even Steely Dan, all pop acts with a deep appreciation for jazz, though his fealty to the genre drifts toward the smooth and mellow. Early on he sings,

With my chores I only flirt
Hung in my hammock reading Kurt
Struggling to remain inert
Now that the summer's here.

Combine that vibe with his kinship to players like guitarist Chuck Loeb (a co-producer along with pianist Gil Goldstein), trumpeter Till Bronner, saxophonist Eric Marienthal, bassists Mark Egan, Will Lee and Jay Anderson, and drummer Billy Kilson—well, that’s an inspiring team who impart their gifts by surrounding Franks with lush rhythms, Brazilian-style, as well as great deal of silky romanticism.

Franks with his beloved dachshund,
Flora, who passed during the album's
production and for whom the CD
and title track is named.
After 20+ releases, this superb outing leaves no doubt that Franks remains a singular tunesmith and at the top of his game. He’s nothing if not a wide-eyed optimist; the synthetic percussion of “Summer In New York” makes for an infectious chill-out track, thanks mostly to Chuck Loeb’s studio wizardry, classy guitar and Bronner’s glossy horn solo. As one would expect, Franks’s music is soft-shouldered, its edges smoothed out for easy listening and maximum enjoyment. He name-checks Ahmad Jamal and “Poinciana,” Astrud Gilberto and, of course, Jobim. That doesn’t mean his intent is diluted. Indeed, like his best work (and that includes “When I Give My Love To You” and “Popsicle Toes”) the songs on this album tap international pleasure spots with ringing authenticity, like the nostalgic “One Day In St. Tropez,” featuring guitarist Romero Lubambo.  

There’s something reassuring about the gentle lilt of his voice and his unapologetically sunny lyrics. But equally pleasurable about Michael Franks is his devotion to good sound and to the musicians that make his compositions bloom. When Franks does step out of character, it’s like hearing a passing comment from a friend during a reflective beachfront stroll. And though “Charlie Chan In Egypt” directly questions our country’s foreign policy and wars of choice (he sings of “these terrible misadventures we are involved in”) it’s as sobering as Franks gets, but what you’ll inevitably take away from this lovely album is his sparkling lyricism and point-of-view that all’s basically right in the world. (11 tracks; 56:59 minutes) www.michaelfranks.com/lyrics.html

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In 1973, flush with cash from the success of records like Deodato’s 2001, producer Creed Taylor and composer/arranger Don Sebesky envisioned a different concept album for CTI, devising a double-length recording to pay tribute to the stars that lifted sales for the label. Unlike their previous efforts, “Giant Box” (CTI/Masterworks Jazz) was a monster in style, spirit and length (the opening track, a 13 minute+ mash up of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and John McLaughlin’s “Birds Of Fire” epitomized CTI’s overwrought but potent signature tunes.) The giants in this box include Paul Desmond, Hubert Laws (“Fly/Circles”), Milt Jackson (“Vocalese”), Freddie Hubbard and Airto—and each has shining moments. Young lions like Grover Washington, Jr., Bob James, George Benson, singers Jackie and Roy, and of course, “house” bassist Ron Carter and drummers Billy Cobham and Jack DeJohnette round out the all-star cast. Previously available only as costly import-only CD, the recording has been reissued under Sony’s CTI/Jazz Masterworks series and is available domestically for the first time since its original release.

The album remains a qualified success, spotlighted by the sweet, floating alto of Paul Desmond on “Song To A Seagull” to Sebesky’s own “Free As A Bird,” with its tight horn arrangements, a swinging straight-ahead solo by Bob James and gutsy blowing by Grover Washington. Hey, there’s even Sebesky’s own endearing Chet Baker-like vocal on “Fly/Circle.” While Jimmy Webb’s ode-to-joy, “Psalm 150,” and the super funky, electrified “Semi-Tough” show their age, all the artists play impeccably within their allotted solo space. Sure, Freddie Hubbard and George Benson always sounded better on their own dates for CTI, but this giant box of sound captures both an aesthetic and an attitude that holds up mighty well. (7 tracks; 59:38 minutes) www.CTIMasterworks.com

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“Beyond The Blue Horizon” (CTI/Masterworks Jazz) is Benson’s 1971 label debut and he refines the evocative language on the guitar that he established on his earlier Verve recordings. The album features some of the best playing you’ll hear from Benson. It’s a classic electric guitar/organ soul-jazz date with superb soloing from bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jack DeJohnette and organist Clarence Palmer on affecting renditions of Miles Davis’s “So What,” Luiz Bonfa’s “Gentle Rain” and a hearty crop of Benson originals including “Somewhere In The East.” Like all albums in the current CTI reissue series, the CDs are packaged like mini-LPs, complete with original photography by Pete Turner, liner inserts, bonus tracks and discerning production by Richard Seidel who treated these remastered recordings with the respect they deserve. Also check out Freddie Hubbard’s string-kissed “First Light” (1971), the first CTI release to win a Grammy and Stanley Turrentine’s “Salt Song” with its arrangements by Eumir Deadato, with many more reissues on the way. (8 tracks; 54:14 minutes) www.CTIMasterworks.com 

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Monday, June 6, 2011


Photo by Ryan Paternite
“Live At Birdland” (ECM Records) is a shimmering jazz recording that even non-jazz listeners can appreciate for its exquisite after-hours renditions of rapturous standards like “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and George Shearing’s tribute to the club, “Lullaby of Birdland.” There’s no denying that this quartet of pros, led by 83 year old saxophonist Lee Konitz, bring a moody tenderness to “Loverman” that’s every bit as wistful and encompassing as Billie Holiday’s. It turns out that this stunning live document, recorded in New York City in December 2009, was created without a rehearsal or set list by three masters and a charismatic pianist who immerse themselves in these deeply rooted melodies, gently expanding their rhythmic parameters. Whereas Miles Davis’ “Solar” is all shadows cast in minor keys, strung together by Konitz’s tart alto and Mehldau’s dark progressions, it’s drummer Motian and bassist Haden, both long associated with the ECM label, who bring an ebullient bounce to “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” and give Sonny Rollin’s “Oleo” a gratifying dose of free-form interplay. Like last year’s masterwork, “Jasmine” by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden, the appeal here is listening to musicians with a limitless capacity for invention and who lovingly fold these tunes into breathtaking new shapes with an origami-like delicacy. (6 tracks; 71:21 minutes) 

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Pianist Helen Sung has a mellifluous style that’s polished in all the right ways and her fifth recording, “(re)Conception” (Steeplechase Records), sets her in a trio format with two dynamic improvisers, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. A New York musician, Sung brings her game to this meticulous recording by playing fast and loose on the title tune where she steamrolls through the changes with peerless resolve and later, on Frank Loesser’s “I Believe In You,” where Sung provides a host of warmly engaging turns over a steady groove. The session was called together on short notice and her basic arrangements form the basis for gorgeous renditions of tunes by Burt Bacharach as well as Duke Ellington (a terrific and jaunty “C Jam Blues”) and she exploits the wonderful nuances of Carl Sigman’s “Crazy, He Calls Me” with an ethereal flair. Sung’s playing gives plenty of props to the late pianist Tommy Flanagan, echoing his style and melodic devices, but Sung is no doppelganger – here she oversees a harmonious confluence of stylish solos, cooled-out vamps and finger-popping swing on this straight-ahead winner. (9 tracks; 57:11 minutes)

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The Brazilian singer, songwriter and pianist, Eliane Elias, does sultry very well. For years, she has transcended any badge that listeners might want to hang on her as she effortlessly veered between instrumental jazz and vocal pop and lately, both genres (2007’s “Something For You,” a tribute to pianist Bill Evans, and 2008’s exemplary collection with strings, “Bossa Nova Stories,” both on Blue Note.) Her glam style makes her instantly recognizable, but it’s her immensely pleasurable vocals that kiss every tune. As a pianist, Elias is plainly enviable.

Elias continues her winning streak on “Light My Fire” (Concord Picante), injecting some fresh blood into her musical family by adding guitarist/vocalist Gilberto Gil, guitarist Romero Lubambo and trumpeter Randy Brecker to a supportive team that already includes bassist Marc Johnson, guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and drummer Paulo Braga. Her covers of tunes by Stevie Wonder (“My Cherie Amour”) and Paul Desmond (“Take Five”) are okay, though her bedroom take on the title tune, complete with smoky electric guitar, is pretty good and appropriately leaves nothing to the imagination. Where the album really cooks is on two Gil originals, “Aquele Abraco” and “Toda Menina Baiana,” both awash with syncopated melodies and fiery Brazilian grooves. She confesses to being a romantic at heart and Elias knows how to set the mood, but “Light My Fire” zips along thanks to the singer’s plush arrangements and frankly awesome talent. (12 tracks; 54:36 minutes)

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Over the course of his remarkable 50-year career, Burton has remained one of the great vibes players, an honest auteur with a singular modern sound and four-mallet technique that has kept him at the forefront of jazz starting with the debut of his first quartet in 1967 that featured Larry Coryell, Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow. Burton’s longevity is due partly to his commitment to new talent – younger musicians with something to say – and the debut of his new quartet proves it.

On “Common Ground” (Mack Avenue Records), bassist Scott Colley and the drummer Antonio Sanchez each pitch their own compositions (“Never The Same Way” and “Did You Get It,” an energetic jolt of the blues) and they always frame Burton’s glistening sound with a soulful vibe. But the star turn here is by guitarist Julian Lage, a Burton discovery with a head full of ideas and an uncommon capacity for serving up evocative originals (“Etude” and “Banksy”). Burton readily admits his fondness for the vibraphone-guitar sound and that dynamic is perfected tune after tune. Highlights include the title track (another Sanchez bright spot), an arrestingly novel treatment of “My Funny Valentine” featuring an extended solo intro by Lage, and the closer written by Keith Jarrett called “In Your Quiet Place,” a late night love letter that lingers with an expressive melody and a quiet intensity. (10 tracks: 66:04 minutes)

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There’s a storybook quality to the music that guitarist Nadav Remez composes for his debut that’s both compelling and heartfelt. A Brooklyn transplant by way of Israel, Remez has assembled an expressive ensemble of musicians for a program of emotionally charged tunes that sounds as intimate as a septet can make them (he expands the band on two tracks by adding trumpet.)  “Pinchas” takes the spotlight with a dominating melody outlined by saxophonists James Wylie and Steve Brickman. Remez’s playing has shapely post bop contours and the tune features pianist/keyboardist Shai Maestro who invests his clear-eyed solo with an innate soulfulness. Keeping the beat is drummer Ziv Ravitz who, along with bassist Avri Borochov, maintains a steady rhythmic flow. It’s one knockout tune followed by another, “Inner Peace,” which shares its chord structure with Joe Henderson’s classic “Inner Urge.”  As an arranger Remez sets things up to flatter his band mates and here we get another quietly inspiring piano solo from Maestro. The guitarist circles back to the ensemble repeatedly, making the changes on track five, mysteriously “Untitled,” both celebratory and, thanks to a pronounced organ tremolo, also a little mystical. The back end of the album plies the jazz roots of Remez’s homeland with a graceful humility (“The Miracle”) and ends with a low key solo complete with electro tinkering that suggests, like all of “So Far,” that Remez is happy to create the sound and let us supply the imagery. (9 tracks; 56:21 minutes) www.nadavremez.com   www.bjurecords.com 

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