JAZZ IN SPACE: April 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Pianist Steve Kuhn approaches music with the respectful notion that one needs to weave an emotional thread through a song, so whether he’s playing a standard or tunes from his own memorable playbook, his musical language has a remarkable capacity to connect deeply with the listener. Classically trained, Kuhn has had an illustrious career performing in groups led by trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer and notably in the early 60’s, when he briefly played in John Coltrane’s soon-to-be legendary quartet, but quit to join Stan Getz’s band. As a leader, there’s much to treasure in Kuhn’s solo recordings, especially those for Concord, ECM and the Reservoir label.    

“Wisteria” is a trio recording, a combo where Kuhn shines, and it’s enriched by unexpected tune choices as much as the lively accompaniment by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron, both of whom individually share a history with Kuhn but make their debut as a unit here. On this straight-ahead outing, Kuhn returns to the urbane, airy style of playing that recalls the rhythmic joys of albums by Bill Evans or McCoy Tyner. Kuhn revels in tunes from his own repertoire, as well as solid tracks composed by Swallow, Carla Bley and the title tune by Art Farmer. Modern sounding originals like “Chalet” bloom with melodic invention while the gorgeous “Morning Dew” is characterized by Swallow’s serpentine bass solo, deliciously tuneful, along with impressive tonal coloration by Baron who plays his kit with the subtlest of touches and just the right amount of kick-drum. Baron, who has played with the pianist in a variety of settings for more than 20 years, underscores the fast pitch of Kuhn’s “A Likely Story,” the album’s barnburner and most fun tune, with the kind of percussive fireworks that define drummers in his league.

If you like hearing a master at work as well as just plain, great piano jazz, “Wisteria” is among Kuhn’s best – it’s a terrific mainstream release with solid tunes, incomparable teamwork and an overall good feeling.  (11 tracks; 67:31 minutes)  

Kuhn, Swallow and Baron will celebrate the release of “Wisteria” with five nights of shows at New York’s Birdland club from May 8th to the 12th.

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Melissa Stylianou is a new name to me, yet “Silent Movie” (Anzic Records) is her fourth recording and it’s a winner by all measures, from the program of songs to the hues of emotion, made musical and colored brightly by her amazing band. Her liner notes reveal that evoking a mood, a place or a memory is foremost on Stylianou’s mind, and in that respect I am reminded of Joni Mitchell’s early records since Stylianou’s style of singing suggests Mitchell as well.

By linking the listening of her album to the experience of watching a story unfold on screen, Stylianou smartly frames these twelve songs that comprise “Silent Movie” with a welcome intimacy. The gifted quartet of musicians that support her, guitarist Pete McCann, bassist Gary Wang, drummer Rodney Green and the fresh sounding pianist, Jamie Reynolds, collectively become the weavers of her dreams and Stylianou’s set list is delivered with breathtaking clarity, thanks to the uncluttered arrangements that frame her gorgeous voice. Her song selection mix modern classics like Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones” and James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves,” with the unexpected (Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”) and the band is often augmented by the multi-reed magic of Anat Cohen whose subtle assist gives the music a sonic buzz. Stylianou’s original lyrics (added to tunes by Vince Mendoza and Edgar Meyer) have equal power to move you, particularly the title track where a conflicted couple watch a film, yet their emotional division preoccupies them to distraction. Happily, the album has a satisfying completeness that keeps you fully engaged and its cinematic motif is nicely underscored by Charles’ Chaplin’s “Smile” and Mancini’s “Moon River,” stalwart screen gems with built in appeal that bookend the recording and which Stylianou delivers with delicate grace. (12 tracks; 54:47 minutes)

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Visionary women in jazz – we’re talking Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Anita O’Day and Carmen McCrae – may be the hook and inspiration for “Girl Talk,” (Palmetto) but it also gives Grammy® nominated singer Kate McGarry a platform to cozy up to standards her own way, which means suppressing her pop inclinations (just a little bit) for something more soulfully reflective. It’s not quite a reinvention, but McGarry slips into the hypnotic chanteuse role splendidly on “Girl Talk,” with an true romanticism that swirls like so much cigarette smoke of a bygone era, until she blows it away with her stunningly original takes on chestnuts like “Charade” (a tango!) and the Gershwin’s’ “The Man I Love.” Credit her longtime musical family – guitarist (and husband) Keith Ganz, organist/pianist Gary Versace, bassist Rueben Rogers, and drummer/percussionist Clarence Penn who lays down a foundation of supple beats.

McGarry is a singer with a difference. She’s a smart and committed song stylist with an airy, breezy voice that’s easy to swoon over. Thanks to the solid, modern arrangements, she makes tunes like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “We Kiss In The Shadow” sounds like it was written yesterday. That she included it as a banner-waving proclamation for marriage equality gets her major bonus points. There’s more good stuff like her giddy gospel take of Neil Hefti’s title tune with Versace’s quivering organ fills and Ganz’s bluesy solo, and the finger-popping grooves of “This Heart Of Mine” and “It’s Wonderful World” with lyrics that she coos with affection. But nothing beats the punch of the Jimmy Rowles, “Looking Back,” a wistful song that affirms once again that “home is where the heart is.” Over the gentle accompaniment of Ganz’s lush guitar sonics, McGarry sings with uncommon sincerity and her longing becomes our own. With her song choices, thematic concept and those ace musicians along for the ride, “Girl Talk” is another McGarry triumph. (10 tracks; 44:42 minutes)

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Drummer Billy Hart has been playing and performing with top tier names since the 60’s, but based on the music he’s recorded with pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus), saxophonist Mark Turner (FLY) and bassist Ben Street (Kurt Rosenwinkel), he sounds like he’s never been happier. That’s what you hear on 2009’s “Quartet” (HighNote), an album characterized by this band’s high functioning level of interplay. With its refreshing reads on tunes by Coltrane and Parker, and an edgy mix of originals, “Quartet” sounds like nothing less than a master class on improvisational possibilities.
Photo by me at band's gig on April 3, 2012. Sorry, Ben Street!

“All Our Reasons,” their debut on the ECM label, finds the band delving deeper into a sound shaped by nuance of tone and tempo. The album doesn’t produce the same frisson as hearing the band live, but suggests just the same that there’s more going on than just music. It’s a brotherhood, linked in part by musical telepathy but mostly an open appreciation and respect for Billy Hart.

The music on “Reasons” is bold and nearly free form. Hart’s “Song For Balkis” intrigues as a sweetly textured ballad with Turner playing pensively around Hart’s gentle but unpredictable beats until the drummer escalates the tempo with dramatic flourishes. Iverson reworks John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” as “Ohnedaruth” (Coltrane’s adopted spiritual name), merely whispering its familiar melody as he pursues harmonic variations within. Turner’s “Nigeria” is a high-speed workout, the band flushed with facility and fast reflexes. And “Duchess” squeezes evocative solos out of melodic motifs for a nicely twisted sonic free-for-all. Throughout, Street’s tuneful bass wraps delicious notes around the contours of band mate’s solos, Turner confidently moves between contemplation and bursts of expressiveness and Hart works his kit like a percussive orchestra, and in the end they all come together, playing like a quartet of musical brothers. (9 tracks; 59:34 minutes)

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“Seeds From The Underground," saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s second recording for the Mack Avenue label, catches the alto player heading up an all-original date with pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Nat Reeves, drummer Ronald Bruner and percussionist Rudy Bird. Press notes confirm Garrett’s affection for melody and rhythm and “Seeds” gives us the lyrical side of the saxophonist, who dedicates each tune on the recording to musical friends, teachers and heroes that Garrett has encountered during his illustrious 30-year career.

There’s a wide range of feeling and mood on the recording, from the exuberant post bop surge of “J Mac” (written for Jackie McLean) to the groove-based lines on “Wiggins,” written for his high school ban director. Keith Jarrett, Ellington, Monk and drummer Roy Haynes each get a tune written for them, along with musical praise for Mother Earth (“Welcome Earth Song”) and the music of Guadeloupe. As a composer Garrett covers a lot of bases and history – “Detroit” incorporates the static layer of pops and clicks of a worn vinyl LP and brings in vocalist Nedelka Prescod to evoke the music Duke Pearson arranged for Donald Byrd’s 1964 album, “A New Perspective,” with nods to “Chant” and “Cristo Redentor.”

Garrett has always been an innovator. His muscular tone and taut phrasing mesh well with the Latin tinge he gives most of his originals and at its core, “Seeds” illustrates Garrett’s high standard for playing jazz and the album makes a convincing musical statement for both the man and his inspirations. (10 tracks; 70:04 minutes) 

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Monday, April 2, 2012


“Radio Music Society,” (Heads Up) Esperanza Spalding’s fourth album, is a defining statement that finds fertile middle ground between jazz and pop music. It’s a concept record that counters your expectations about what you might hear on the radio if Spalding programmed its content, and for her that means smart music where the message is as important as the groove. With her star on the ascent, Spalding has made a unique record about empowerment and adulthood that builds on her impressive skill set and when you take it all in, you can’t help think that she’s on her way to becoming a genuine superstar.

“Radio” recalls early records by Stevie Wonder (she includes a delectable cover of “I Can’t Help It” here) that knitted together songs about love, sex and relationships with dance tunes and stories about everyday life. Those albums were cohesive experiences where the artist’s integrity was never called into question, and Spalding has accomplished the same thing here. In that sense, Spalding is a musician period, neither limited to pop nor jazz. Besides her bass playing, producer and songwriting talent, Spalding’s an arresting singer with a voice that is sweetly luminous. Singles like “Cinnamon Tree” “Black Gold” and “City Of Roses” can be easy on the ears, replete with sunny hooks and bumpin’ bass, but “Radio Music Society” goes deeper lyrically and takes a few spins to absorb the full effect of her music.

Spring for the “deluxe” package if you’re buying or downloading “Radio Music,” which includes a terrific DVD of short form hi-def videos that integrate Spalding’s songs into a loose narrative. It’s clever and engaging and like nothing you’ve ever seen from an artist like her. You’ll also get a glimpse of some of the jazz veterans that play on the recording -- saxophonist Joe Lovano (she plays in his Us Five band), drummers Billy Hart, Terri Lynn Carrington and Jack DeJohnette – but the production is pleasingly all about Spalding and reinforces that she’s firmly in control of her destiny and music. As a crossover project, “Radio Music Society,” is solidly accomplished on Spalding’s own terms and she is decidedly no sell out. “Radio” is music for the 21st century – download it, hear it, watch it. (12 tracks; 57:58 minutes)

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Matt Wilson is an unimpeachably great drummer and bandleader with ten solo records to his credit. He maintains two bands that he performs and records regularly with, the Matt Wilson Quartet (comprised of two horn players and a bassist) and Arts & Crafts, a traditional combo currently staffed with trumpeter Terrell Stafford, bassist Martin Wind and organist/pianist Gary Versace. The vibe on “An Attitude For Gratitude” (Palmetto Records) is mostly straight-ahead with a program of 11 tracks that feature beauty over brawn. Sure, there are the shifting signatures of “Poster Boy” and the elliptical pleasures of “Bubble” that stand out for their originality, but the slow romanticism of “Happy Days Are Here Again” is to die for and the rock and roll jazz of Nat Adderley’s “Little Boy With The Sad Eyes” will have you cheering for swing. All the guys are in top form here, particularly Terrell Stafford on Adderley’s tune where he maneuvers brilliantly around the pop and groove of his mates’ riding rhythm. Wilson capitalizes on his band’s easy rapport, juicing “You Bet” with a Latinized beat and covering Weather Report’s “Teen Town” with snappy fills behind Versace’s tremolos. “Attitude” peaks naturally on the closer, Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” where the band reaches for a big tenderhearted moment and scores. (11 tracks; 59:34 minutes)

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Recorded in October, 2011, “Blue Moon: The New York Sessions” (Jazz Village) finds pianist and NEA Jazz Master Ahmad Jamal in peak form and, at 81 years of age, playing like a man half his age. And while his playlist includes three originals along with selections from Broadway (“Invitation” “This Is The Life”) and stalwart standards like “Gypsy” and ”Laura,” Jamal plants them in the now, driving his rhythm team, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, with a combination of hard grooves and tender contours. It’s rare to hear an artist of Jamal’s age and experience produce a recording that sounds so contemporary and relevant.

Influential on jazz players past and present, including Miles Davis, Jamal refashions “Autumn Rain” (an original from 1986’s “Rossiter Road”) with his syncopated attack on the keys, a signature sound he’s long mastered where Jamal expands tunes, stretching out the tune’s melodic pulse and convulsing it with a snap of a few notes later. It’s expressive and still thrilling, and so it is when Jamal plays as few chords as possible to denote the title track’s melody, preferring a prominent four-note motif to outline the song. You can’t help but smile at Jamal’s inventiveness and that gives “Blue Moon” the distinction of being one of Jamal’s best recordings ever.  (9 tracks; 76 minutes)

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Based in LA, the British guitarist Chris Standring is at the forefront of the jazz chill movement, a smooth jazz sub-genre that Standring has helped define (always successfully) over more then seven solo recordings. Where others try but end up creating watered down hotel lobby music, Standring’s fleet tracks on “Electric Wonderland” (Ultimate Vibe Recordings) consist of smooth groove melodies built on top of synth bass lines with pockets of rhythmic space that the guitarist dips into with funky chords, undulating vamps and improvised solos that stand out for their compact ingenuity. The album picks up the pace from “Blue Bolero,” his previous string-heavy release, with bouncier tunes that integrate retro flourishes like vocoder vocals, phase shifts and thick Fender Rhodes solos along with an acoustic rhythm section and a live-in-the-studio string section. His shimmering originals strike a bright mood (“Oliver’s Twist” has a heavy electro bossa beat that updates Sergio Mendes’ Brasil 66) and over the course of nine tracks, Standring rules as a master of laid-back funkiness. (10 tracks; 44:18 minutes) photo by timsabatino.com

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A drum and percussion suite headed by multi-instrumentalist Jon Balke, “Say And Play” (ECM) is a sonic odyssey that fuses organic beats derived from Nigerian Yoruba culture, Arabic music and Senegalese traditions with layered percussion, trance-like vocals, electronics and keyboards. Balke and his musicians (including musical partner Helge Andreas Norbakkan) add stream of consciousness lyrics sung by Emilie Stoesen Christiansen for an effect that suggests Bjorky performance art mixed with an after hours chill party. ECM recordings always sound great and this one is mixed deep for a lush, bass heavy experience. The spacey, sometimes ghostly vocals weave in and out of “Say And Play,” which together with its electro-pulse and nocturnal throb has an extraordinary way of getting under your skin. (13 tracks; 47:03 minutes)

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I was introduced to this dynamic 26-year-old Cuban pianist when he opened for Chucho Valdes in January, 2012, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ. On stage, he quickly established himself as a force, a powerhouse pianist with a touch of mischievous showmanship – he had the sell-out crowd leaning forward in our seats in anticipation of how he would play his next composition. At one point, he took strips of paper and wove them among the piano strings to create a buzzy, electronic effect.

Having fled Cuba in 2009 by way of Mexico, his crackling debut album in the US, “Sounds Of Space,” (Mack Avenue Records) is a compelling tour du force and it’s essentially free of theatrics save for Rodriguez’s lightning fast reflexes and punchy keyboard runs. No wonder Quincy Jones was impressed enough to co-produce this date. Rodriguez composed and arranged an all-original set that builds on his influences, from the artists of his homeland to Bud Powell (“Cubop”) and yes, even Ahmad Jamal (“Crossing The Border”). He gets a major assist from saxophonist/clarinetist Ernesto Vega, bassists Gaston Joya and Peter Slavov, and drummers Michael Olivera and Francisco Mela. For a first recording, Rodriguez provides plenty of wow, with a front-and-center enthusiasm that gives “Sounds Of Space” its speed and invention. (11 tracks: 58:27 minutes)

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