JAZZ IN SPACE: September 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011


It’s not quite a British invasion but the dynamic young pianist, John Escreet, is stirring things up on the jazz scene. Transplanted to New York from Doncaster, England where he was born in 1984, Escreet graduated from the Masters program at the Manhattan School of Music in 2008 where he studied under pianists Jason Moran and Kenny Barron, the former an acclaimed modernist while the latter is renowned as an elder jazz statesman best known for his role in Stan Getz’s last band. His teachers have had an affecting influence on Escreet’s music, and his compositions frequently reflect moments that suggest Moran’s expansion of the vocabulary of jazz as well as Barron’s pronounced lyricism.  A promise of things to come, his anticipated debut, “Consequences,” (2008) was thematically abstract and its lengthy tunes flared on the whims of its improvisers, while last year’s excellent “Don’t Fight The Inevitable” was progressively accessible with tracks that had greater emotional depth, still rooted in the avant-garde yet cleverly embossed with contemporary sensibilities.

photo by Alice Zulkarnain
Escreet’s confident third (and best) release, The Age We Live In,” (Mythology Records) firmly plants itself at the intersection where improvised jazz, taut electro-rhythms and shades of hip-hop collide to make a compelling musical statement. In a rush of adrenaline, the recording jumpstarts with an intro of strummed piano wires and a flurry of drumbeats. With boosted bass, the album takes off with a jolt. Alternating between piano and Fender Rhodes, Escreet’s playing is breathtaking for its speed (“The Domino Effect”) as much as his eloquence. His music recalls 1970s Weather Report, especially on the title track and hints at Creed Taylor’s early CTI – the edgy “Stand Clear” is up-to-the-minute urban jazz while the ebullient “Half-Baked” shakes itself loose with a funkified Fender Rhodes. He thinks bigger by including brass arrangements and strings, pulling out the stops with chopped up time signatures (“A Day In Music”) and playing pretty when it matters (“As The Moon Disappears.”)  

By now Escreet’s music has a recognizable signature. As a composer, Escreet favors the dramatic, where frontline horns led by saxophonist David Binney bleat over super-sized beats supplied by Marcus Gilmore and Wayne Krantz’s guitar growls with impunity. It’s as if his charts are written in oversized notes made by a blunt Sharpie instead of a #2 pencil. The constant in all of Escreet’s recordings is Mr. Binney and whether he’s playing mentor (he’s also the co-producer) or foil during Escreet’s turn at the keys, he’s a steady force for the pianist’s imagination and free-spirited invention. (12 tracks; 52:05 minutes) www.johnescreet.com

Nick note: John is a rather prolific guy and has a new quartet CD on the Candid label out now, called "Exception To The Rule." Will be checkin' it out soon!

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Drummer, producer and vocalist Terri Lyne Carrington has been on the scene for more than two decades and her previous recordings (her “Real Life Story” series) were an ambitious blend of R&B and smooth jazz with feel-good, sometimes socially conscious vocals, and while they were true at their core, their overt eclecticism lessened their overall impact.

Carrington gets it right on “The Mosaic Project” (Concord Jazz.) The album is an outstanding achievement notable for its all-female cast of musicians and a stunning mix of originals and covers. As a leader, Carrington’s beats are supple and powerful and always in-the-pocket. She rocks a new rendition of the 80’s club hit “Transformation,” performed by Nona Hendryx and gives a lift to the hauntingly beautiful “Echo,” with a spoken word intro by activist Angela Davis and lyrics sung by the golden voiced Dianne Reeves. As an album of many delights, you’ll likely reach for the credit list as often as I did to identify terrific work by pianists Patrice Rushen and Helen Sung along with singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Carmen Lundy. Particularly good is pianist Geri Allen’s original, “Unconditional Love,” with blissful wordless vocalizations by bassist Esperanza Spalding, as well as the clear as a bell tone of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on “Michelle” and Anat Cohen’s bass clarinet on “Wistful.” There’s also Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” sung by Cassandra Wilson, Gretchen Parlato on Irving Berlin’s “I Got Lost In His Arms” and a worthy empowerment rap, “Sisters On The Rise.”

As varied as it is, real jazz (“Insomniac”) indeed blends seamlessly with the smooth, “The Mosaic Project” flows in a remarkably cohesive fashion. Carrington does a marvelous job of keeping the music brimming with invention and when your head is not bopping to her sure-fire beats, the infectious tunes are sure to take you away on clouds of joy. (14 tracks; 71:48 minutes) 

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By now, the singer with the beguiling voice, Madeleine Peyroux, needs no introduction. Her 2004 breakthrough album, “Careless Love” and follow-up, “Half The Perfect World” (2006) solidified her popularity with tunes that resonated on an honest emotional level and were vividly realized by well-respected jazz musicians.

Grounded in the roots tradition, “Standing On The Roof” (Emarcy/Decca Records) maintains the spirit of her previous recordings but reliably casts Peyroux as a pop rather than jazz singer, something that’s probably by design and long overdue. Her talent effortlessly bridges both genres and while it’s nearly a cliché to compare her unique voice to Billie Holiday’s, she remains a highly individualistic performer. Working here with producer Craig Street (Norah Jones, k.d. lang), the guitar-driven recording maintains the singer’s preference for pristine sound and warm production values. Notably, Peyroux and Street’s team includes bassist Me’shell Ndegeocello, guitarists Marc Ribot and Christopher Bruce, violinist Jenny Scheinman and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint. That’s a potent team, some of who collaborated closely with the singer, co-writing originals like an easy, loping “The Things I’ve Seen Today” and the percussive thrum on the hypnotic title track, which is a better fit with Peyroux’s voice than some of her previous, jazzier turns.

Many of the tunes are nuggets of pop perfection, like Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” “Don’t Pick A Fight With A Poet” and “Meet Me In Rio,” a track that blooms with spacey funk. The album ends on a lovely grace note that is “The Way Of All Things” where Peyroux sings of “hopes that play jokes and have their sting,” but her attitude shines with optimism as if she’s singing in a beam of sunlight. (12 tracks; 47:42 minutes) 

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At 26, bassist Ben Williams makes a successful debut with “State Of Art” (Concord Jazz) that shows off his strong compositional chops – 5 tunes are originals - and his arranging skills covering tunes by Stevie Wonder (“Part Time Lover”) and Michael Jackson. But mostly the vibe he’s feeling on this likeable album is modern day soul-jazz and contemporary R&B with a touch of hip-hop. Williams is a conscientious player and a gifted musician. He brings a Go-Go beat to Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane,” inserts a rap track featuring label mate Christian Scott that schools those who need it on the importance of trumpeter Lee Morgan, and reworks the closing standard, “Moonlight In Vermont” like a Prince-like signature ballad.

Williams won first prize in the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Competition for double bass and he’s been a band member with vibraphonist Stefon Harris & Blackout, so he knows his stuff. His ace crew here can play and they sharpen Williams’ edge. Marcus Strickland’s slippery saxophone, the profoundly soulful solos by keyboardist and pianist Gerald Clayton and the propulsive thump and shimmering cymbal work by drummer Jamire Williams all sit just right. Run through these tunes a few times and you might be asking, who makes music cooler than Ben Williams? (11 tracks; 61:50 minutes)

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You don’t have to look far to hear a true jazz singer. That would be Judy Wexler and she’s someone who’s got the smarts to understand a lyrical phrase and knows how to tell a story. A chanteuse to be reckoned with, Wexler teams again with pianist/arranger extraordinaire Alan Pasqua for her third album, “Under A Painted Sky” (Jazzed Media Records.)

Golden voiced with spot-on enunciation and a natural loveliness, Wexler whoops it up in grand fashion (“Wonderful Wonderful”), handles samba with gentle aplomb (“A Little Tear”) and swings the dickens out of Benny Golson’s finger-popping “Whisper Not.” She respectfully takes for her own two tunes associated with great jazz vocalists, Abbey Lincoln’s “And How I Hoped For Your Love” and “The Great City” once popularized by Shirley Horn back in the 60s.

Bassist Darek Oles, drummer Steve Haas, saxophonists Bob Mintzer (tenor) and Bob Sheppard (soprano) guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter Walt Fowler and percussionist Alex Acuna provide the kind of top-tier support that Wexler deserves and it’s worth giving Pasqua additional credit for creating a open soundstage that’s both intimate and welcoming. If there’s one tune missing among the dozen high-quality standards and tunes that Wexler interprets, it would be the song that best defines her – Cole Porter’s “So Easy To Love.”  (12 tracks; 59:05 minutes) 

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A novel collaboration between the esteemed pianist Aaron Goldberg and critically acclaimed composer/arranger Guillermo Klein, who also plays Fender Rhodes, “Bienestan” (Sunnyside Records) intrigues as a meeting of the musical minds and blows you away with its sonic magnetism. Named for a mythical country where their music could have originated, Goldberg and Klein offer a musical potpourri of sorts, including reworked standards (a stunning “All The Things You Are”) and a couple of Charlie Parker tunes including a wonderfully Bizarro version of “Moose The Mooche” (that makes you think "is it real or Memorex?") Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland pony up their magical accompaniment at will – they’re technically flawless and full of heart -- along with guest saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Chris Cheek. Some tunes come across as fascinating fragments (“Implacable” and “Airport Fugue”) while two versions of “Mahna De Carnaval” are respectively dream-like and soulful. The whole enterprise is inexplicably hip and you feel as if you’ve been specially invited to listen in. (13 tracks; 57:22 minutes) 

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Keyboardist Bob Baldwin may be the hardest working man in jazz, carving out a niche to keep his “New Urban Jazz” style of music in the ears of smooth jazz listeners by relentlessly touring, keeping his website and blog up-to-date, and maintaining a prolific recording schedule and radio show. His signature style is an upbeat mélange of bass heavy contempo jazz and melodic R+B, combining the classic and contemporary along the lines of Ramsey Lewis and Herbie Hancock. On “NewUrbanJazz.com 2 /Re-Vibe” (Trippin' and Rhythm Records), a sequel of sorts to an earlier CD, he works up some well-crafted pop jazz instrumentals (“Get Over It” and “For Grover and George”) as well as “Unthinkable” that has a Joey Somerville flugelhorn refrain that echoes Burt Bacharach. The vocals by Glenn Jones and others are proto-typical bedroom ballads but the title track has more ounce to its bounce and “Every Breath Is A Gift” is first-class funky. A guilty pleasure to be sure, I’ve got to give Baldwin his props and I’m cool getting re-vibed again for the summertime. Good job, Bob! (14 tracks; 72:43 minutes) www.newurbanjazz.com 

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