JAZZ IN SPACE: February 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012


There’s a welcome artistic reinvention on Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen’s release, “The Well,” and that’s good news because his current group, which includes the neo-Gabarek saxophonist Tore Brunborg, is more refined and plays with greater common purpose since their last outing, “Returned, Restored,” a fine album that mixed things up with a vocalist. Here, Gustavsen focuses on the music, reconnecting with his compositional confidence on a warmer-than-usual album that benefits enormously from the quartet’s looseness and grounded interplay. Most of the tunes hover around the 4-5 minute mark, which makes for some concise but penetrating solos, especially on the album’s centerpiece, “Circling,” a blues-shaded track with a gospel heritage where Gustavsen’s Evans-like playing has a satisfying rightness. Drummer Jarle Vespestad maintains some nicely patterned grooves (“Playing” and “Suite”) and bassist Mats Eilertsen has a deep, resonant tone that underscores the richness of the leader’s music. Naturally, the ECM recording is flawless and a carefully designed listening experience from the eloquent pitch of “Prelude” to the mallets on cymbals that draws down the closing track (“Inside”) much like the sun setting on the horizon in winter. (11 tracks; 53:19 minutes)  photo by Javimar Noa

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Pianist Robert Glasper arrives at the nexus of jazz, hip-hop, R&B and pop on the much-anticipated “Black Radio,” a state-of-the-art album that soars with deft rhymes, thick beats and a top-tier array of guests starting with Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello and Lalah Hathaway. Glasper, a genuine jazz guy, hinted at the possibilities of reshaping his music on “Double Booked” (Blue Note, 2009), his previous album that programmed trio-based tunes upfront and let looser material fly with his band, saxist Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge and knock-out drummer Chris Dave, all of whom assist in delivering the goods here.

This immaculate production follows pioneering records by Guru, De La Soul and mostly, A Tribe Called Quest, but what makes “Radio” hum is the jolt of genuine pianism that courses through the album’s veins, particularly when Glasper lets loose on winning covers of David Bowie’s “Letter To Hermione,” and a cerebrally funky “Smells Like Teen Spirit” where Benjamin’s vocoder blends with spacey, ray-gun effects and a Zapp-infused groove. There’s a dose of MC-styled social consciousness (“Always Shine” with Lupe Fiasco and Bilal; the beat-heavy title tune with Mos Def) that comfortably shares space with heart+soul tracks like the sweetly gorgeous “Move” with KING and “Ah Yeah” with Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette, that helps make listening to the venture a gratifying experience. Like others before him, notably trumpeter Roy Hargrove recording as The RH Factor and trumpeter Nicholas Payton whose self-released “Bitches” was a superior jazz-hop hybrid that no domestic label wanted to touch, Glasper is confidently at peace in all realms of his musical world and even with the incredible all-star line up, there’s no doubting that on “Radio” the pianist shines the brightest of all. (12 tracks; 63:47 minutes) 

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Singer/songwriter Gregory Porter has made the great jazz vocal album of 2012 with his sophomore recording, “Be Good,” an intoxicating mix of storytelling and elegant musicianship, sprinkled with Motown backbeats and fleet horn arrangements by Kamau Kenyatta. Porter, whose debut, “Water” (Motema, 2010) was nominated for a Grammy®, started out singing in jazz clubs in college, later creating a one-man theatrical tribute to Nat King Cole and eventually ending up on Broadway in “It Ain’t Nothing But The Blues.” That performance background is evident when you listen to Porter’s tunes; the songs on “Be Good” are structured as narratives, taking up residence in your head, and you’re happily struck by how hummable, soulful and memorable they are. Credit veteran producer Brian Bacchus (Norah Jones) who frames Porter with right-on accompaniment – pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold hold down the brilliant rhythm section -- and essentially lets Porter do his thing.

Porter definitely accentuates the positive and his hearty singing style evokes Bill Withers’ soulful endeavors. On “Real Good Hands,” he infuses a story about new romance with a bluesy cadence and again on the title track, “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” a parable about beauty and seduction set in ¾ time. But it’s the fabulously catchy love letter “On My Way To Harlem” where Porter pulls out the stops and salutes heroes like Duke, Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye, complete with a rubbery bassline, tick-tock percussion, and punchy horns. It’s a song that shows why Porter is boundless by genre and subject matter; he can soothe (“Painted on Canvas”) or inspire (“Mother’s Song”), but Porter always moves you with his righteous lyrics and 
gentleman’s croon. (12 tracks; 62:09 minutes)    

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The stylish jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum consistently hits that crossover sweet spot with his buttery tone and lyrical phrasing that finds him at home in multiple places, be it smooth jazz, R&B, gospel or straight-ahead jazz. Like his 2011 tribute to Donny Hathaway, “Romance Language” dips into familiar territory. In collaboration with his brother, vocalist Kevin Whalum, they re-imagine the classic 1963 album, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman,” a desert-island disc of tenor sax/vocal bliss if ever there was one. That’s a risky proposition, but Whalum’s devotion to the original’s emotional core is evident throughout “Language.” Recorded mostly “live” in Nashville with his touring band, Whalum and co-producer/pianist John Stoddard update all six songs that were on the original and places them squarely in the present day. Turns out that these pitch-perfect pop/jazz confections have an elegance all their own with instrumentation that’s as smooth as Kevin Whalum’s honeyed pipes. Whalum rounds out the recording with four superbly soulful tunes associated with Brandy, Lewis and Jam, Eric Benet and Joe, and while they have their own merits, those first six tracks deserve their own playlist. (10 tracks; 55:10 minutes)

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After two first-rate jazz recordings with the same band, “Men of Honor” (2010, HighNote) and last year’s “The Talented Mr. Pelt,” trumpeter Jeremy Pelt dials down his exuberance but not his passion on “Soul,” a superior album of mostly supple ballads that blends the leader’s smooth tone with the boss tenor of J.D. Allen. His rhythm section, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Gerald Cleaver, is sublime and they get to stretch out winningly on the medium tempo burner, “The Tempest,” and again on the swinging “What’s Wrong Is Right,” a luxuriously long track drenched in rhythm and the blues. The big takeaway is the brief but gorgeous standard, “Moondrift,” sung by Philadelphia-based Joanna Pascale, whose glistening performance suggests a spectacular talent that cries out for her own album with this svelte band. (8 tracks: 53:45 minutes) photo by Jimmy Ryan

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This powerhouse trio, bassist Dan Loomis, vibraphonist James Westfall and drummer Jared Schonig, resolutely charts their own musical trajectory by following up their pair of boisterously fun albums (Capitol Diner, Volume One and Two) with a nifty EP of David Bowie tunes that cranks out “Battle For Britain” and “Queen Bitch” with blazing authority. Schonig’s a busy drummer who mixes in-the-pocket grooves (“1984”) with headbanging thrashers (“Sunday”), but the band, especially bassist Loomis, maintains a sonic playground that’s grounded with dazzling teamplay. Subtitled “A David Bowie Intraspective,” who knew the vibes could funnel the lyrical rawness of the originals into something so manically fun? Find them at www.cdbaby.com (6 tracks; 31:21 minutes)

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Guitarist Paul Brown is a well-known producer with a golden touch, and he’s supplied most of the biggest names in contemporary jazz (George Benson, Al Jarreau) with the melodies and pop grooves that inevitably lift their sales and profiles. As a solo artist -- this is his sixth record -- Brown cooks up a strong set list for “The Funky Joint,” (Woodward Avenue Records) concentrating his formidable skills to make a relaxed, soulful recording brimming with indelible hooks and glossy fret work. Guest contributions from saxophonist Boney James and (unrelated) pianist Bob James provide their upscale signature touches, but it’s the understated collaboration with guitarist Marc Antoine (“On A Clear Day”) and keyboardist Marco Basci (“Montreaux”) that gives “Joint” its plush vibe. Other pluses include the shrewd horn section at play on the title tune, a cooled-out rhythm track that makes “Say It Like It Is” click, and Brown’s own blues-drenched vocal on “I Get A Feeling.” (10 tracks; 39:27 minutes)

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Pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Ali Jackson prove that there’s nothing wrong with making music that’s winningly soulful and plainly beautiful. They get right to it on this date recorded in December 2009, with Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Maraba Blue,” a loping blues with soul-jazz flavor and a gospel lilt that’s leavened with warm, plump bass notes and Goldberg’s sure touch. The title tune bounces with the sureness of Oscar Peterson in his prime while others like the joyful, loose-limbed “Aziel’s Dance” and a cover of Monk’s “Epistrophy” are enriched by the snap and pop of Jackson’s timekeeping. It don’t mean a thing without two Ellington tunes. The trio maps out Mercer Ellington’s bouncing “Way Way Back” and Duke’s feisty “The Shepherd” with their compelling interplay that Goldberg takes to a higher plane on the latter with his brilliant keyboard runs and sparkling solos. The recording sheds light on Goldberg’s improvisational dexterity and he’s the catalyst for this music sounding so complete and heartfelt. Matched with Avital and Jackson, they collectively make “Yes!” a perfect date that’s pretty and smart. (9 tracks; 63:37 minutes)

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For a jazz musician to put together a tribute to pianist and composer Thelonious Monk as his debut might give one pause – I mean, haven’t we heard this all before? But in the hands of trumpeter Jimmy Owens, the music is wrapped tight in the blues and whether it bustles (“Bright Mississippi”) swings (“Let’s Cool One”) or revels in quirkiness (“Brilliant Corners”) it turns out that there’s still plenty of elasticity and an element of surprise in Monk’s classic tunes. An NEA Jazz Master and educator, Owens recruits an all-star band comprised of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and baritone sax player Howard Johnson with an equally unflappable rhythm section of pianist Kenny Barron (himself the leader of the Monk tribute band back in the day called Sphere), bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Winard Harper. The band shines as a whole but saxophonist Marcus Strickland gets extra credit for his salient phrasing and bursts of improvisational goodness. The music may be familiar on “The Monk Project” but Owens makes it sound remarkably attractive all over again. (10 tracks; 75:01 minutes)

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Enrico Rava is an evocative trumpeter and composer with a deeply felt affinity for film music, particularly from his native Italy. His albums, and there are many good ones, have a cinematic quality and indeed, the albums titled “Tati” (ECM) and “La Dolce Vita” (Cam Jazz) trace this love affair. “Tribe” (ECM) groups Rava with a team of younger Italian musicians with a similar interest, notably trombonist Gianluca Patrella, who shares front line duties without reservation and a prescient rhythm section led by pianist Giovanni Guidi. Rava is definitely fired up by this band in spite of a program that drifts between gauzy tone poems and energetic tunes like the sharply rendered “Choctaw” where the quintet snaps into focus and enriches a typically buoyant Rava melody. “Tribe” also gives the masterful Rava a platform to revisit tunes he’s previously recorded, which goes to show how flexible and interesting his music can be in present day hands. The trumpeter can be somber (“Amnesia”), sentimental (“F. Express”) and a straight-up modernist (the juicy title track), which gives “Tribe” its overall vibe. (12 tracks; 64:51 minutes)

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When Nat Janoff solos on his guitar his eyes close and he gets a beatific smile on his face as his playing expands in pleasing directions, his mind and fingers creating compelling moments that clarify his gleaming originals. The music on “CTMA” is revelatory for the quality of Janoff’s group sound and it’s worth repeat visits. Grab it for Janoff’s cleanly composed tunes built upon solid melodies and rhythmic structures (“Mood”) and for his trio, where bassist Francois Moutin rocks his upright bass and coaxes fleet solos with amazing dexterity (“Sunday Morning”) and drummer Chris Carroll who reigns supreme with serrated time signatures and smooth propulsion (Shorter Times.”) Get it to hear pianist John Escreet juice Janoff’s date with stellar comping and kinetic solos that flatter the guitarist’s tracks with choice phrasing. Escreet plays off Janoff’s riffs, blending traditional runs with his own edgy improvisation (“Mood”) or cementing a groove (“Partly Cloudy”), something that’s especially affecting when the band blends both on the FX-dusted cool of “Transit.” It’s baffling that it wasn’t picked up by one of the many boutique jazz labels for proper distribution but “Come Together Move Apart” is easily accessible through Janoff’s website and internet outlets. (www.natjanoff.com) (9 tracks; 54:36 minutes)

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For lovers of great jazz vocalists, a voice as original as the late Blossom Dearie’s remains distinctive to this day and just as delightful.  Her relaxed style and clever delivery is echoed by singer Amy Cervini on “Digging You Digging Me,” (Anzic) a tribute recording where she culls her favorite Dearie tunes and gives them a twist with beefed up contributions from some of New York’s best jazz musicians. The ensemble is anchored by pianist Bruce Barth and includes bassist Matt Aranoff, drummer Matt Wilson, clarinetist Anat Cohen and her brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, a cello section, with vibes and percussionist James Shipp -- all of it recorded in spectacular fashion by James Farber.

Cervini has a charming left-of-center voice that never mimics Dearie but respectfully honors her, from the perky, Broadway flavored “Everything I’ve Got” and bossa nova swoon of “I’m Shadowing You” to the wistful, cabaret confessional “I Like You, You’re Nice.” Cervini infuses Dearie’s best tunes (“Rhode Island,” “My Attorney Bernie,” “Down With Love”) with a joyful effervescence that’s emotionally honest and affirming, even as she tackles a croaker like “Doodlin’ Song.” But Cervini plays it straight, without irony or a wink, and makes it work. The album also succeeds from Cervini’s partnership with pianist Barth, especially when they reframe Dearie’s signature tune, “Tea For Two,” making it a whole lot bigger and nearly twice as nice. (13 tracks; 47:18 minutes)

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Back in the late 70s, the JL Fusion band struck a chord with listeners who dug the band’s sonic pyrotechnics and a fiery young saxophonist named Kenny Gorelick who morphed into Kenny G. That aside, Lorber’s signature sound hasn’t changed much over the years, a percussive electro-keyboard sound rooted in deep bass and punchy grooves, and it’s that familiarity that continues to make him so listenable and keeps him in current demand as a producer and player.

Sharply co-produced by Lorber and Yellowjacket’s bassist Jimmy Haslip, “Galaxy” (Heads Up) rekindles the group’s original fire with a terrific new band (and tunes to match) that includes saxophonist Eric Marienthal, percussionist Lenny Castro, trumpeter Randy Brecker and spot-on input by Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl who alternate on drums.  The up-to-date sound is impressively gut rumbling but when you have speedball tracks like “Live Wire” and “Big Brother” paired with high-quality remakes of “City” and Wizard Island” the result is a mix that’s infectious, and “Galaxy” deservedly keeps Lorber in the bullseye of the contemporary jazz scene. (11 tracks; 55:36 minutes)

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The esteemed ECM label, headquartered in Munich, is sustained not by its roster of renowned musicians (Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd) and a catalog of more than 1,000 jazz and classical recordings, but by the preternatural vision of one man, Manfred Eicher, whose life embodies a relentless quest for perfection. He’s the focus of a carefully crafted documentary, “Sounds And Silence: Travels With Manfred Eicher,” that gives us a refracted tour of the producer’s schedule and begins with Eicher in a room alone, deep in contemplation over a solo piano recording, after which he remarks, “for me the luminosity of the sound is always what I’m looking for.”  But as viewers we’re kept at a cool distance from Eicher and never see or learn what’s behind his reputation or his veneer as a producer for one of the world’s greatest jazz and classical labels.

The co-directors, Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmar, zero in on themes of creation, its process and completion. And then there are the musicians in Eicher’s orbit, characters we meet along the way – pianist Eleni Karaindrou who happily surrenders control to her producer, the austere saxophonist Jan Gabarek who absorbs suggestions and breaths them out on his horn, the vain but gifted bandoneon player, Dino Saluzzi; and the colorful alto player Gianluigi Trovesi, full of stories and a jovial demeanor that Fellini would have loved.

Part travelogue (we see plenty of planes, trains and automobiles) and part backstage musical, the two best moments are purely visual: the cross cutting between young composer Nik Bartsch’s piano tuner performing his own amazing feat of restoration and repair on the felts and hammers with the recording of the pianist’s own unique blending of keyboard and percussion. The other follows anxious composer Arvo Part as he frets over the production of his choral work. When a passage works, he dances with Eicher and when he doubts, he remains hopeful that all the parts -- music, voice and recorded sound -- will “become one organism.” The film concludes with a swell of wide-eyed optimism from the composer Part who hears his work performed as he envisioned, and his elation ultimately exemplifies the master producer’s quest for perfection, which in “Sounds And Silence,” suggests the triumvirate of art, commerce and sonic purity. (87 minutes, Blu-ray, full 1080i HD, 16:9 OAR)