JAZZ IN SPACE: October 2011

Monday, October 3, 2011


On my way to NYC with this!
I think I saw Valdemort up there.

Dark skies preceded the heavy rains that came last Thursday, September 29, but by late day the storm front moved on and sunshine bathed Manhattan, gently pushing the city into dusk. It was to be a night of jazz gigs for me – a rarity these days – and it all began at La Poussin Rouge on Bleecker Street to attend a concert with saxophonist Marcus Strickland who was celebrating his new double CD, “Triumph Of The Heavy.” Loved D.J. Premiere on the turntables warming up the crowd beforehand, spinning Grover Washington’s original Kudu tracks from the 70’s, along with some  bass and drum grooves. The band hit the stage at 7:30 and here’s the thing: Marcus Strickland is so personable and unpretentious, and once he briefly thanks everyone for coming out, he lays out track after track of beautiful horn sounds. There’s a lot of Wayne Shorter in his sound and style of composing, but Strickland’s songs are infused with the classic soul and jazz of the 70’s as much as the Blue Note’s legacy of great saxophonists. The set was well paced, the band relaxed and was highlighted by a beautiful love song to his girlfriend, “Dawn” and the juiced version of “Mudbone,” a fun song based on the character Richard Pryor would perform in concert. The line up was great and the same as it is on the album: David Bryant on piano (new to me), brother E.J. Strickland on drums and the young Ben Williams, who just released his debut album and play the upright bass with the finesse of Ron Carter and the soul of Motown’s James Jamerson. Special guests included a female tap trio called The Tap Messengers who accompanied the band on a couple tunes, and alto-sax player Jaleel Shaw. Here’s a hard-to-see shot of the gig from my camera.

After this positive set ended, I skipped the after party (although I really wanted to meet and talk to Ben Williams) because I was headed over to the very tiny Bar 55 on Christopher Street for The John Escreet Project. By now, I’ll tell anyone that John’s one of my faves, a brilliant improviser and affecting performer. I rooted myself at the end of bar, right beside the bandstand. Well, not a stand exactly, but a small corner space about 8 x 8 feet that squeezed in John and his electric keyboard, drummer Jim Black, bassist Matt Brewer with Chris Potter on tenor and David Binney on alto saxophone. What a set! Tunes would often start by John extracting sounds from his keys, teasing out sequences that felt right even when it meant hammering at a dead key at the end of the board. He clued his band when he was ready and the group would whip up sturdy grooves, majestic horn passages and some of the most electrifying inventive drumming I’ve heard. Funny, Black didn’t bring any sticks to the gig and the set started once the staff had found him some but, man, can he play.

The crowd was interesting to me and had me wondering where they’d heard about this gig. An eclectic mix of all ages: hipsters, musicians, writers, students and tourists, some no doubt hearing John for the first time (a few of them, baffled by this band’s spirit, darted for the doors in between tunes.) I was happy to bump up against and meet Will Friedwald, one of my favorite writers and the author of the indispensable reference work, “A Biographical Guide To The Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” and did so because the club’s management packed us in like a Tokyo subway car which I found a little dismaying but once the music took off and John coaxed deliriously serpentine phrases from the keys and at lightening quick tempos, you could feel a communal vibe that we all loved what we were hearing. I was so miffed my phone died (Droid Incredible is not really) that I couldn’t snap a shot of the band because they were right there. So you have to settle from this staged shot of John from his newest CD, "Exception To The Rule" on the Criss Cross label:   

Promo shot of
John Escreet.
It makes me smile because Escreet is an unassuming fellow with a great smile and good nature, as likely to show up for a gig in a t-shirt, jeans and Adidas, a ubiquitous pair of headphones clamped around his neck. I can’t wait to see and hear where he goes in the years ahead. His terrific website: www.johnescreet.com

I once felt that if I could be alive at any other point in history, it would be the late 50’s and early 60’s in NYC, so I could have experienced Miles, Trane, Monk, Eric Dolphy and all those guys in small clubs and bars. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I got a sense this night that my experience at 55 Bar was probably what it was like.

BTW, walking back to my hotel I headed down Bleecker Street and there stood Ben Williams, hanging outside the club, so I took two minutes to shower him with compliments about his music and his debut album. His companion recognized my name, recalled my review about “State Of Art,” and she complimented me back. Nice! 

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Sam Yahel’s reputation is anchored by his skill as an organist for groups led by Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ryan Kisor as well as recorded gigs with Norah Jones, Lizz Wright and Peter Cincotti, and his Hammond B-3 licks thrill with their edginess and soulful swagger. Though you get a taste of Yahel’s signature sound on the title track, Yahel applies his gifts primarily as a pianist on “From Sun To Sun,” which puts him in a trio setting with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Ruekert on a mostly original program save for three melodious covers (“A Beautiful Friendship,” Cole Porter’s “So In Love” and “Taking A Chance On Love.”) The surrounding tracks are sublime, rife with opportunities for this crew to bob and weave with an authority that feels exactly right. Yahel is an expressionistic pianist who reminds one of a sunnier, unencumbered Keith Jarrett. Taking in the colorful atmospherics of “Toy Balloon” and inspirational interplay on  “One False Move” along with the breezy “By Hook Or By Crook” is to listen to jazz in its most energetic, satisfying form. “From Sun to Sun” is a whirl of inventiveness, mixing modern jazz, ballads and personal anthems (“Blink And Move On”) into a shimmering, uplifting whole. Available here. (13 tracks; 68:46 minutes) www.origin-records.com

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Recorded without rehearsal and essentially in one long take (no do-overs!), “Something Special” (TPRecordings) is a classy recording that’s juiced by Philadelphia’s own Jimmy Amadie, a masterful old-school pianist who swings brightly on a clutch of standards that sound renewed thanks to his skillful trio. Life hasn’t been easy for Amadie – physical issues conspire against him continuously and it’s a wonder that he plays with such a sunny disposition. That’s the definition of a consummate professional, I suppose, because Amadie brings it home on tracks like the spirited “All The Things You Are,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” a rollicking Autumn Leaves” and “Fly Me To The Moon.” Amadie’s got ace rhythmic support in longtime bassist Tony Marino and drummer Bill Goodwin who, together, dovetail beautifully with Amadie throughout, particularly on the leader’s own “Blue For Sweet Lizzy,” a winner that lopes through the head then blooms in Technicolor, bouncing over a tight groove. Another original, “Happy Man’s Bossa Nova” is a persuasive Brazilian number with a cheerful melody and nice changes throughout. Amadie’s a remarkable pianist, one of the best, and you can tell he’s filled with the joy of jazz by listening to him play. Another first class recording for Amadie, “Something Special” is heartfelt music that makes you feel good. In support of this album, Amadie will be performing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on October 14th which will be his first public performance since 1967.  (10 tracks; 61:16 minutes) www.jimmyamadie.com

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You can’t argue with a concept that puts the music of Stevie Wonder front and center; you could only find fault if your personal favorite isn’t a part of the “Wonderful!” (Origin Records) playlist. Formed in Chicago in 2000, The Deep Blue Organ Trio is Bobby Broom on guitar (a longtime sideman for Sonny Rollins,) Greg Rockingham on drums and Chris Forman on the Hammond B3. Forman, blind since birth, supplies the soul power on a kick-ass recording that pulls its selections from Wonder’s earlier records. “Tell Me Something Good” (the hit Wonder wrote for Rufus and Chaka Khan) sets a celebratory tone, a “grease and grits” approach that organist Charles Earland favored, especially covering pop tunes as he often did. Connecting the dots, drummer Rockingham played with Earland for years; here he keeps the groove sustained on “Golden Lady” and “Jesus Children Of America” and provides the percussive fills around Forman’s slamming solos. So infectious are these tracks that the recording has a natural thrust – one great tune ends and you’re anticipating the next hit. “My Cherie Amour” gets a moody treatment, slowed way down and sounding as if it’s played at a downstairs bar through a haze of smoke at 3 am. Dig that “Ribbon In The Sky” coda, too. Broom is in sterling form here, as good as he was on his recent Monk tribute record, and he plays with a Wes Montgomery-like facility and grace. The undoubted highlight here is a bump and grind riff on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’, with enough vamps and struts to carry on twice its length. Well worth purchasing here. (9 tracks; 62:19 minutes) www.origin-records.com  here

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Sometimes jazz is about small moves and simple melodies. From this template springs the debut of Shirley Crabbe who sings jazz and pop standards with a natural effervescence and infectious brightness. Her voice has a natural clarity, one akin to Dianne Reeves, but with a softer and at times, tentative edge. On “Home” (MaiSong Music) she surrounds herself with loyal support that clearly adores her – pianists Jim West and Donald Vega, bassist John Burr, drummer Alvester Garnett and an equally talented horn section. Mentored by the inimitable Etta Jones, Crabbe is a latecomer to the scene but sounds no less seasoned by experience and musicality. The ultimate success of her debut stands on three numbers, Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me” and Oscar Brown’s “Strong Man,” where Crabbe’s lustrous voice hosts saxophonist Houston Person whose velvety solos lend the album its classic feel. Then there’s the exotic arrangement of Carole King’s “So Far Away” that Crabbe sings with soulful aplomb, investing the lyric with a mournful and deeply knowing emotionality. (9 tracks; 44:20 minutes)  www.shirleycrabbe.com  Take a listen here.

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It defies belief that “Resilience” (JLP Records) is a debut recording from the young tenor saxophonist, Tim Mayer, chiefly because he sounds so old -- as in experienced, polished and professional. Cohesively constructed, the album suggests that Mayer has a crush on cool school sounds originally swung by guys like Zoot Sims and Frank Wess. This is exuberant stuff that’s given the full workout by its cast of players like pianist George Cables, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Willie Jones III; all of them top notch talent. Also remarkable is Mayer’s guest list that includes trumpeters Claudio Roditi, Greg Gisbert and Dominick Farinacci, trombonist Michael Dease, guitarist Mark Whitfield and Don Braden on flute. Slavish to the groove, Mayer leads his all-stars through vintage jazz hits by Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Fats Navarro (a juicy “Dance Of The Infidels”) and Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” where he cleverly echoes the great Charlie Rouse. Fresher still are hard-line showstoppers like Dease’s sublimely swinging “For Miles” where Mayer spins out notes with a delirious glee and Cable’s own “Klimo,” a bossa inflected bop tune that’s animated by its darting melodic lines and fusion of horns. Mayer’s effortless proficiency extends to ballads (the solid “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry”) and his own rapid fire “Who Knew” that pairs the saxophonist with guitarist Whitfield, hammering their notes home in perfect unison. “Resilience” is a breathlessly exciting, straight-ahead recording. (10 tracks; 60:51 minutes)  Get it here.

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Few jazz artists have gone as far as George Benson in terms of crossover appeal and recognition. From his earliest straight-ahead recordings, Benson has a canny ability to plug into the pop-jazz zeitgeist like few jazzmen. “Guitar Man” (Concord Jazz) aims to connect Benson with his “Breezin’” roots and he reigns supreme on his instrument – unadorned versions of “Tenderly,” “Don’t Know Why” and meaty, string-laden renditions of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “My Cherie Amour” are terrific. On-board veterans like pianist Joe Sample, drummer Harvey Mason and super hot bassist Ben Williams get to shine on bite size cuts like “Naima,” “Tequila” and “Paper Moon” but there’s no mistaking that Benson is calling the shots and making all the right moves. (George Benson will be performing at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA on October 23. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.) (12 tracks; 43:05 minutes)  Check out the album or download it here.

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