JAZZ IN SPACE: June 2012

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Ralph Peterson is a drummer gifted with spirit and skill. His 15th recording "The Duality Perspective" is both introspective and celebratory—its release coincides with the leader’s 50th birthday. The record is crafted to showcase Peterson’s two working groups. Like an opening band before the main act, his quartet of current students called the Fo’tet take care of business on the first five tracks; and they acquit RP’s compositions and a Latin-tinged cover of Monk’s “4 in 1” with resounding satisfaction. Still finishing up their studies, vibes player Joseph Doubleday, bassist Alexander Toth and clarinetist Felix Peikli strike a confident tone, digging into the music with gusto.

Once the sextet takes center stage, the album is lifted to greatness. Brothers Luques (bass) and Zaccai Curtis (piano) anchor a splendid rhythm section that meshes naturally with frontline horn players, trumpeter Sean Jones, saxophonist Tia Fuller and tenor player Walter Smith III, musicians who dominate on their instruments. Inspired by Art Blakey and Woody Shaw, Peterson’s “Coming Home” and “Impervious Gems” swing with outstanding harmonic sophistication. He cultivates a smooth blend of straight-ahead styles including the Afro-Caribbean rhythms on the title track, tapping his full kit to find the perfect balance of sound and percussive effects. On “Pinnacle,” a tune where fleet-fingered Victor Gould subs for Curtis, Peterson writes with maximum flexibility to give his soloists plenty of room to fly.

"The Duality Perspective" finds Peterson in his element and his musicians share a universal consciousness with the leader, sweeping aside their inhibitions to swing and connect with the roots of Peterson’s post-bop jazz. (10 tracks; 67:27 minutes)

My photo: Young lions, Joseph Doubleday (vibes), Alexander L.J. Toth (bass) and Felix Peikli (clarinet) at RP's CD release/birthday bash at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in June, 2012. Terrific show with RP previewing and playing music from the new CD. Sitting next to me at the bar was trumpeter Christian Scott and his band, part of the huge crowd that turned out to celebrate RP's birthday.

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Mary Stallings is a brilliant jazz singer whose recent recordings have been revelatory in the way she takes on standards, both well known and obscure, and infuses them with a rewarding range of emotion, something many singers try to achieve but fall short of doing. "Don’t Look Back" (HighNote Records) is an extraordinary collection of songs that Ms. Stallings once again invests in fully and selflessly. Credit her 12-year association with pianist Eric Reed, a relationship as indelible as Ella Fitzgerald had with pianist Ellis Larkins on their classic duet records. Reed is a subtle arranger, reducing tunes like “Key Largo” and “People Time” to their essence by shaping music and voice into an organic whole. He’s also a masterful accompanist, a purveyor of swing and deeply felt soul either as a soloist or with bassist Rueben Rogers and drummer Carl Allen, both heavy hitters who provide Stallings with sublime support.

This candlelit album basks in the glow of blissful reminisces (the title tune), yearning come-ons (“The Way You Love Me”) and wistful connections (the one-take tour-de-force “Goodbye Medley”). The album balances such intimacy with a couple of blues and a breezy Reed original “Is That? (This Love)” that beams with good feelings. Recordings as good as "Don’t Look Back" don’t appear often and for this queen of song, who’s had a robust 50-year career, it’s a crowning achievement. (12 tracks; 60:14 minutes) www.jazzdepot.com 

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Lucid pianism and bright grooves are two reasons that Philly based Orrin Evans is so in-demand as a player.  But if you visit Evans’ website or dig a little deeper to learn about him online, you get a sense he’s a restless guy eager to reach new listeners and ready to mix things up to do so. His 14th recording as a leader, "Flip The Script" (Posi-tone), is positioned to do just that. It is a tremendous set of fully realized originals like “TC’s Blues” and The Answer,” tunes that dodge your expectations along with a couple of surprising covers (Luther Vandross’ “Brand New Day”). Evans is at the forefront of a movement (given voice and momentum by trumpeter Nicholas Payton) to recast jazz as Black American Music. Flip may be a BAM album, but Evans mostly sticks to a sleek modernistic language that has served him well over his many fine albums. His tunes are expertly interpreted and sharpened by bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards, two long-time associates who click with the pianist in every best way. Evans fuels this highly listenable record with a muscular and attractive playing style. “Question” is a time-shifting pleasure with Monkish twists and turns and the breezy swing of “Clean House” is outright exhilarating. Other highlights include “Big Small,” a rhapsodic blues and a version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” that flows on chord changes rather than the melody. Evans plays the final track, “The Sound Of Philadelphia” (the theme song to Soul Train) as a solo feature. His phrasing is tranquil, embellished with gospel and soul licks, and whether he calls it jazz or BAM, it’s flipping awesome. (10 tracks; 45:20 minutes) www.posi-tone.com www.orrinevansmusic.com

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I have always been impressed with the way jazz harpist Carol Robbins pairs her instrumental sound with a traditional rhythm section. Her harp is warm and effervescent; she plays it like “one of the guys” yet there’s something very comforting about the crystalline sound of her strings and the way Robbins applies it to her music. The first-class support on her fourth solo recording, "Moraga" (Jazz Cat Records), includes the terrific pianist Billy Childs, bassist Darek Oles, drummer Gary Novak along with saxophonist Gary Meek and guitarist Larry Koonse whose addition creates a unique instrumental blend with the harp. "Moraga" is centered more heavily around Robbins’s own tunes, save for a lush and lovely version of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” Her writing and arrangements here are among her best to date. There’s a gutsy intensity on “Sand Rover” and the up-tempo “Straight Away,” two bold tunes that create one-of-a-kind sonics. “Three Rivers” is as gorgeous and durable as a Pat Metheny ballad and captures the inherent fluidity of the harp, while its beauty is amplified by the quality of Robbins’s writing. "Moraga" is essential listening that illustrates why Robbins deserves major props for her astonishingly beautiful musicianship and her durable, original compositions. All of her music is available at www.cdbaby.com/cd/carolrobbins2 and www.carolrobbins.net (9 tracks; 55:06 minutes)

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"Believe" (Motema) surely solidifies the stature of drummer Billy Hart, especially since this recording arrives so soon after his own "All Our Reasons" (ECM), one of this year’s best jazz albums. On Believe, he’s part of an A-list team of seasoned pros and jazz veterans. The boss frontline includes tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, plus alto sax player Craig Handy, and you can’t top the ace rhythm section with pianist George Cables and bassist Cecil McBee. They are the Cookers. From the Coltrane-ish opener, “Believe, For It Is True,” a slow unfolding blues with majestic solos from Harper and Weiss to the closer, “Naaj,” where the horns soar over a triumphant chorus, the Cookers indeed smoke through a mostly original program.

There’s satisfaction in the group’s old school stylings, but the compositions are bereft of cobwebs. The tracks by Cecil McBee, “Temptations” and “Tight Squeeze,” have a steely modernity that gives soloists like Henderson and Weiss some breathing room to shine. Pianist Cables always writes great tunes and his “Ebony Moonbeams” and the refreshing “But He Knows,” dials up the lyrical quotient with solid solos by all. As with their 2010 debut, "Warriors", and 2011 release, "Cast The First Stone", the Cookers deliver straight-ahead jazz with brains and brawn and Believe is beautifully rendered. The magnificent seven ride again! (8 tracks; 64:03 minutes)

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Curtis Mayfield has been gone since 1999, but his legacy and recordings continue to enrich listeners and the imagination of present day musicians. Mayfield was a resilient artist who could look at the injustices that rocked the ‘60s and ‘70s and translate it into a defiant mix of gospel and funk that comforted as well. "Impressions Of Curtis Mayfield" (BFM Jazz) is a high-spirited celebration underscored by a fabulous band of heavy hitters led by the unsung guitarist and co-producer Phil Upchurch that includes drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, pianist Russ Ferrante (Yellowjackets), bassist Robert Hurst, trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Ernie Watts and percussionist Master Henry Gibson who, significantly, played on Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack and with him in concert for 17 years. Hits that Mayfield had with The Impressions (“Gypsy Woman,” “Check Out Your Mind”) and his own solo projects (“Freddie’s Dead,” “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready”) get bouncing workouts that trigger involuntary head bobbing. Upchurch sets the crisp tempo on “It’s Alright,” one of Mayfield’s most optimistic tunes, and his arrangements give it and “We’re A Winner” a deep, gliding funk. This all-star jazz effort works and yes, their cover of “Superfly” is grandly nostalgic and boasts a groove that bassist Hurst owns. (12 tracks; 74:04 minutes) 

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Friday, June 1, 2012


Gig photos by me. Click on them to embiggen!

Bassist Ben Williams has hit the heights. Since winning the 2009 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Bass Competition he has joined the roster at Concord Records, which released his debut CD (State Of Art) last year, and landed high profile gigs on George Benson’s Guitar Man, as well as being a part of Pat Metheny’s new Unity Band. That new album features a quartet that includes saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Not only am I anticipating a terrific recording, it’s the first time in more than 30 years that Metheny has included a tenor player in his front line (remember 80/81 with Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker?)

In March, I was in Los Angeles for the first time visiting my niece on spring break and while looking for some music to hear, see that Williams was touring in support of his record with an appearance scheduled at The Blue Whale – I was so there!  For those that know LA, it took me over an hour from my hotel in Westwood to get to the club in the Little Tokyo neighborhood.

In LA, Williams featured a stripped down band, a lean and mean groove-centric quartet called Sound Effect. SE features Philly saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, drummer John Davis and the marvelous, young pianist Christian Sands. And they delivered a groove bomb when I heard them.

The club was packed, the band was feeding off the vibe and they delivered the goods. Highlighting tracks off the album, Williams played his original tunes, “Home,” Dawn Of A New Day, “November” and a gorgeous cover by the soul singer Goapele (who was in the audience.)  Shaw was spotlighted on soprano and alto saxophone, blowing hard and keeping the audience rapt with his sinuous solos. At 22, Sands is something of a prodigy, composing since he was 5, and currently a master of jazz, blues and Latin rhythms that players like Christian McBride have noticed. Here, he played in a modern style, with some choice percussive chords that echoed Red Garland – in other words, he’s easy to appreciate and made it happen throughout the set. Williams and drummer Davis got “Dawn” off to a percolating start complete with a “Poinciana” lilt and the tune delivered an extended Williams solo that made us all understand his particular language on the bass. He’s super articulate, tuneful and uber-cool. Having had a chance to speak with him before this show and on one earlier occasion, it’s clear that this likeable young cat’s personality flows through his instrument. His sound makes every listener feel welcome and “State Of Art” is an ideal recording to share with anyone into modern jazz that's painted with soul and R&B.

Courtesy of Concord Record
GO HEAR 'EM IN NYC:  Williams and Sound Effect are scheduled to play at Smalls Jazz Club on Wednesday, June 13 in Greenwich Village (10th Street at 7th Avenue.) www.smallsjazzclub.com 

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Sometimes when a group gets together, like this one under the leadership of 28-year-old drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., the intent isn’t about playing the most complex or challenging compositions. On “Unanimous,” an apt and righteous album title, Owens’ concept “was to hire a group who are tops on their instruments in jazz, and give them music that isn’t difficult.”  His band is both illustrious (Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Christian McBride on the bass) and wide open to this idea (alto sax player Jaleel Shaw, pianist Christian Sands and trombonist Michael Dease.)  Stocked with sleek, soulful originals (“Beardom X,” McBride’s “Cute and Sixy”) and vintage favorites like Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.” and Lee Morgan’s rollin’ “Party Time,” Owens lets his band mates do their thing – Payton has a withering good solo ala Woody Shaw on the original lead tune “Good And Terrible” and rising star Christian Sands solos mightily on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” “Prototype,” a tune by Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000), pops up as a moody highlight halfway through, adding to the eclecticism of the project. Owens switches to trio mode for the last three tracks, letting Sands and McBride deploy some affecting solos and exchanges on “Cherokee” and the splendid “You Make Me Feel So Young.”  Overall, the music on “Unanimous” sounds and feels good, qualities that guarantee repeat listening. Owens is a marvelous drummer with the wisdom to keep the music flowing – he’s got no time for extended head-rattling solos here – and it’s a credit to his reputation that he’s got friends like Payton, McBride and the others on board, making his debut a spirited and welcome hang. (9 tracks; 69:45 minutes) www.crisscrossjazz.com Owens maintain his own excellent site at: www.usojazzy.com In addition to playing on dates with Kurt Elling and Christian McBride (and many more) he's produced notable recordings by bassist Matthew Rybicki and trumpeter Mike Cottone.

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It’s tough to dispute the discographies that turned Ella, Billie and Sarah into the reigning queens of jazz, but that has never discounted the contributions of many others, including Chris Connor, Anita O’Day, June Christy and Julie London. Count vocalist Kathy Kosins among their fans since her fifth recording, the terrific “To The Ladies Of Cool,” (Resonance Records) salutes their music and enduring legacies on an album of seldom heard standards and bubbly tunes enriched by the arrangements of pianist Tamir Hendelman whose sterling accompaniment can’t be overstated. With Kosins on top, he leads a fleet band that includes trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, bassists Kevin Axt and Paul Keller, guitarist Graham Dechter, Steve Wilkerson on reeds and percussionist Bob Leatherbarrow. “Ladies” is a class act with a strong point of view, thanks to Kosins’ dedication to the source material – she fastidiously combed through not just CD reissues but loads of obscure material made for radio broadcasts and such to find the perfect mix of tunes. As a singer, Kosins voice is pure pleasure, flecked with warmth and a golden hue that swings to the Oscar Peterson pitch of “Learnin’ The Blues” and the easy-going beat under “All I Need Is You.”  “Free and Easy” has that George Shearing vibe going on, as does “Lullaby In Rhythm,” a finger-poppin’ highlight that’s lifted by Kosins’ wordless bebop vocals and succinct band solos. Under the soft lilt of a bossa nova beat, Kosins illuminates the album’s closer, “Where Are You” by taking a lyric like “where is the happy ending” and infusing it with equal parts longing and confident independence.  But swing is the thing on “Ladies Of Cool,” and Kosins remarkable spin on these chestnuts is something you can raise a glass to.  (10 tracks; 50:32 minutes) www.resonancerecords.org  www.kathykosins.com

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BW playing here with Max Weinberg Band,
photo by George Burrows

Sounding particularly polished at the age of 30, saxophonist Brandon Wright brings along his colleagues in the Mingus Big Band – pianist David Kikoski, bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards – for “Journeyman,” (Posi-Tone Records) his second solo album that demonstrates his keen affinity for post-bebop swing, loosey-goosey funk jazz (“Walk Of Shame”) plus unexpected covers of Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” two soaring tracks flush with glistening tenor solos and the straight up soulfulness of pianist Kikoski. Wright’s sound is velvety, lush and smooth on the ballads like “Illusions of Light,” and “The Nearness Of You,” while pleasingly lively through the changes on “Big Bully,” a speedy tune that puts the quartet on fast-forward. For the retro-sounding “Choices,” Edwards supplies the backbeat and Kikoski switches to Fender Rhodes as Wright deftly funnels his ideas into a sonic language of welcome riffs and happy improvisation. Wright is a state of the art horn player who squares a traditional sound (think saxophonist Scott Hamilton) with a modern spirit of discovery and “Journeyman” is full of exceptional moments. (10 tracks; 61:09 minutes) www.posi-tone.com

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Currently based in New York, the German pianist Florian Hoefner launches his stateside debut, “Songs Without Words,” (OA2 Records) a sturdy, involving recording of original tunes that showcases Hoefner’s lyrical style and impressive band mates. Mike Ruby on tenor and soprano saxophones, bassist Sam Anning and Peter Kronreif on drums (each of them are deserving wider recognition as their reps rise) have a tight sound as if they’ve performed as a unit for many years. The pianist’s cohesive tunes emphasize their elegant strengths on a welcome set of tunes that puts committed interplay ahead of a star turn. The fullness of Hoefner’s compositions can be traced to the cool austerity of European jazz paired with the adventurous nature of the Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman collaborations. The shifting rhythm of “Uncertain Times” and pop-like bounce that underscores “Behind The Sun” further highlight the group’s sense of musical brotherhood. There’s a hint of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” on “Songs From the Past,” where Hoefner’s emphatic melodic motif conjures Silver’s licks and pronounced swing, with saxophonist Ruby a particular asset. This is a strong, promising quartet headed by a pianist you’ll want to hear more from. (8 tracks; 55:58 minutes) www.oa2records.com

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Resonance Records, founded by producer and audio engineer George Klabin, is dedicated to preserving jazz and discovering the genre’s rising stars, and has been releasing quality music at a steady pace since 2008. This independent label is meticulous with all details of their releases from the recording and mix to the graphics and packaging. On the preservation front, Klabin has rewarded music fans with treasures from his own collection, dusting off rare tapes and giving them a digital rinse; previously releasing unheard material from Freddie Hubbard (“Pinnacle: Live From Keystone Corner”) and earlier this year, the first known recordings by guitarist Wes Montgomery (“Echoes Of Indiana Avenue.”)

Pianist Bill Evans is among the most well represented jazz artist in the marketplace with dozens of domestic and import recordings available. The latest gem from Resonance Records is a never-before-released two-set gig from Evans, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell, recorded on October 23, 1968 in Greenwich Village at Top Of The Gate, a room upstairs from The Village Gate used for additional bookings to accommodate the robust jazz scene that existed back in the day. Astonishingly, when Evans played the two sets documented here, Thelonious Monk and Charles Lloyd were sharing a double bill downstairs.

Thanks to the then 22-year-old Klabin’s decision to mike each member of the trio, the recorded sound on this 2 CD set is warm and vivid, perhaps one of the best of Bill Evans’ live recordings. Wisely, the new mix and digital restoration maintains the natural analog sound of the performances, thanks to Klabin and co-restorer Fran Gala’s ears, giving the trio’s performance the contemporary sonic kiss they deserve. For audio purists, a limited edition 3-LP 180-gram vinyl box set will also be released.

The set list varies distinctly: “Emily,” Yesterdays,” and “’Round Midnight,” are played at each set and never the same way twice; elsewhere we get swooning renditions of “Gone With The Wind,” Alfie,” In A Sentimental Mood” and a gorgeous “Here’s That Rainy Day,” among others. The only Evans original, “Turn Out The Stars” is played at the end of the first set. None of the tunes goes much past the 7-minute mark proving that Evans was a master of concision, saying more with his solos and letting his trio carry the rest. There’s a stunning version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” during the second set with Evans full bore style in the house, whisking through notes as fast as he can swing, with Eddie Gomez as the ideal foil, both complementing Evans and soloing in counterpoint. Throughout both sets, the band is spirited and by turns, relaxed and intense. The sound of the audience is peripheral, but relatively unobtrusive (they get a little noisy during “Mother Of Earl.”) “Bill Evans Live” may be the best historical jazz release of the year and a sure-fire purchase if you’re even remotely a fan of Evans and his magical trio. (www.resonancerecords.org)

Disc One – Set 1
1. Emily (Mandel & Mercer)
2. Witchcraft (C. Coleman)
3. Yesterdays (J. Kern)
4. Round Midnight (T. Monk)
5. My Funny Valentine (Rogers & Hart)
6. California Here I Come (De Sylva, Jolson & Myers)
7. Gone With The Wind (Magidson & Wrubel)
8. Alfie (B. Bacharach)
9. Turn Out The Stars (B. Evans)

Disc Two – Set 2
1. Yesterdays (J. Kern)
2. Emily (Mandel & Mercer)
3. Round Midnight (T. Monk)
4. In A Sentimental Mood (D. Ellington)
5. Autumn Leaves (J. Kosma)
6. Someday My Prince Will Come (Churchill & Morey)
7. Mother Of Earl (E. Zindar)
8. Here’s That Rainy Day (Burke & Van Heusen)

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