JAZZ IN SPACE: August 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Classically trained British pianist Neil Cowley rooted himself in pop and funk early in his musical career, playing and performing with bands like Zero 7 and Brand New Heavies as well as forming his own acclaimed group, Fragile State, which trafficked in electronic and chill-out lounge music. He continues to ride a heady wave of personal success in England and Europe today, notably playing with Adele on her chart-busting album “21.” With an affectionate eye on jazz, he formed the Neil Cowley Trio in 2006, with music dubbed “jazz for Radiohead fans” - “Radio Silence” and “Displaced” were two earlier albums that deservedly made waves. Prepping for a breakout stateside, you can nearly taste the trio’s exuberance on “The Face Of Mount Molehill,” (NAIM Jazz) their fourth and very fine recording.

TFOMM is straight-up contemporary jazz with a bang-bang edge – vaguely improvisational and tethered to pop, R&B and an occasional drift into something approaching smooth jazz. Cowley, bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins populate the studio-derived tunes with many buzz happy moments and surreal bits of creativity (the sampled child’s laugh as textural component on “Mini Ha Ha” and fizzy synths on the title track) that provide ear candy pleasure. Stronger tracks like “Fable” and “Rooster Was A Witness” are tight and memorable. Nicely, these sticky jazz tunes carry a lot of heart within their tight 3-minute plus playtime.  Stunningly recorded by the audiophile-friendly Naim Records, “The Face Of Mount Molehill” is a 45-minute blast, mixing percussive jazz riffs with British-styled pop grooves and played for big fun. The tunes should sound even better live when the Trio performs at the Iridium in NYC on October 11. (12 tracks; 45:44 minutes) www.naimjazz.com
"Rooster Was A Witness," an impressive vid by NCT

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Beginning in 1974 with his first solo recording for ECM (“Timeless”), guitarist John Abercrombie has embraced various ways to augment the sound of his instrument, experimenting with synthesizers in the 80’s (“Current Events” “Getting There”) and recording albums in he 90’s with organist Dan Wall (“While We’re Young”) and violinist Mark Feldman (“Open Land)” that created arresting group dynamics and musical textures, yet never blurred the guitarist’s tonal purity. His discography includes nearly 30 releases as a leader in addition to his work in the group Gateway and countless collaborations with ECM artists including Charles Lloyd, Jack DeJohnette, Marc Copland and many others.

Abercrombie gets back to basics on his heartfelt and buoyant quartet recording, “Within A Song,” (ECM) paying tribute to his early influences by covering iconic tunes by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The music that spoke so clearly to Abercrombie in the 60’s is presented thoughtfully here, with good feeling and a touch of wistful nostalgia. It’s brought to fruition by the leader, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bass player Drew Gress and the remarkably evocative Joey Baron on drums. With toned down tempos and gripping sonics, Abercrombie often defers the lead voice to Lovano – the sweet tart notes jump from his horn rat-a-tat style on the bravura mash-up, “Within A Song”/”Without a Song” – while the guitarist toys with phrasing and subtle comps in the background. But when Abercrombie’s on deck, it’s the masterful and tuneful fretwork that energizes the recording. “Flamenco Sketches” radiates from Abercrombie’s new read on the melody and the tune unfolds dreamily, its form laced with stunning interplay. The quartet is in especially great form on Coleman’s “Blues Connotation,” which has a freer vibe, with unscripted solos that come together organically. Abercrombie takes the profound melody of Coltrane’s “Wise One” and seamlessly blends reverence for the source material with his effusive, joyful solo. The album is rounded out with the cool blue swing of Bill Evans’ “Interplay” and “Sometime Ago,” a sweet natured standard that connected the guitarist to the Art Farmer-Jim Hall Quartet and here it’s played by Abercrombie and crew with fond affection. (9 tracks; 61:15 minutes)
"Wise One," performed by John Abercrombie

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There’s a euphoric groove that snakes its way through tenor saxophonist Matthew Silberman’s debut, “Questionable Creatures,” (DeSoto Sound Factory) and when it seizes your attention on tracks like “Ghost Of The Prairie” and “The Battle At Dawn,” you’ll recognize a band in perfect sync. The other six tunes, all of them original and involving, take full advantage of the leader’s concept that marries jazz with power chords and tonal rawness. To make this happen, Silberman’s tight-knit, piano-less ensemble features two guitarists (Ryan Ferreira and Greg Ruggiero) along with bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Tommy Crane, a configuration that infuses the music with emotional texture and a genuine sense of adventure. The saxophonist plays with a thick, lush tone, Coltrane-like at times, but driven here by big beats and electrified rhythms. Ferreira weaves a hypnotic solo on “Mrs. Heimoff,” a fractious waltz with twisted riffs and surging sonics. Both guitarists alternate solos on “The Process,” a moody tune that flows with Silberman’s distinctive phrasing, and jointly dial up fuzz tones and psychedelic bliss on the closing track, “The Pharaoh’s Tomb.” Transplanted from Santa Monica, CA to Brooklyn, Silberman digests the contrast between east and west coast living to inspire his compositions and inform his group’s sound. And his artistic vision doesn’t limit itself to music. The album’s graphics display a colorful surrealist landscape and his interactive website is smartly designed to connect with fans in the same way that pop, rap and hip-hop artists do – the music video for “Ghost Of The Prairie” is a first class production rich in atmosphere and dark conspiracies. It’s an interesting brand launch and provides the perfect assist to make “Questionable Creatures” one of this year’s better progressive jazz recordings. 8 tracks; 56:23 minutes) More info here:  www.matthewsilberman.com
The "Ghost Of The Prairie" video

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If you’re a jazz fan who visits or lives in Bucks County, PA, you’ve probably heard of pianist Eric Mintel. A naturally gifted musician who learned to play Brubeck’s “Take Five” during his earliest piano lessons, he formed his quartet in 1993 and has accumulated a host of accolades since then – everything from performing at the White House to being a featured guest in 2005 on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR. “Just Around The Corner” is Mintel’s tenth CD and the most fully realized effort from this impressive artist. Apart from the percolating “That Happy Feeling,” Mintel avoids overt Brubeck licks to play looser, more contemporary compositions that would be right at home on some of pianist David Benoit’s mainstream jazz recordings. The spirited title track kicks things off but deeper in you’ll dig the catchy “Just Happened,” a 7+ minute workout flavored with a satisfying bass n’ drum groove. Other notable highlights include “Heart Of The Holidays,” sweetened for a December playlist but it stands on its own fresh originality. The interplay between Mintel and his band flows freely and the tunes, including the sumptuous ballad “As The Sun Rises,” exude melodic charm. Major credit goes to Nelson Hill on alto and soprano saxophone, electric bassist Jack Hegyi and drummer Dave Mohn, along with Jim McGee who recorded the band in real time (no in-studio fiddling or aural trickery) with immersive old-school analog sound. Mintel’s website has an up-to-date calendar so you too can hear this fine band throughout the region. (10 tracks; 65:41 minutes)   www.ericmintelquartet.com

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With deserved endorsements from guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden, the 7-string guitarist Pete Smyser is releasing his first live recording, “The Jerome Kern Concert,” which documents a wonderful performance at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA from January 2011. The crisp sound and superior acoustics promote a relaxed, yet sophisticated vibe as Smyser interprets Kern’s well-known melodies like “Look For The Silver Lining,” “Pick Yourself Up” and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” The musical bond that Smyser has with pianist Tom Lawton, bassist Madison Rast and drummer Dan Monaghan is tight and tuneful. Lawton is a particularly ace accompanist, filling his solos with colorful hues, and he comps in the classic tradition. Smyser is a mainstay on the Philadelphia scene and his website lists the many opportunities to catch him in the act. For a regional player who’s released six previous albums, Smyser has the chops and rhythmic flair to delight fans of classic jazz standards delivered in a style reminiscent of Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel and to his credit, played with a verve all his own. He performs regularly at The Café in Bethlehem, PA with upcoming dates noted on his website. (11 tracks; 57:02 minutes) Get it here: www.smyser.com
"I Was Doing Alright" by Pete Smyser and crew

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After a bumpy start to his pop career, mostly involving the cumbersome process of making music in a major label sausage factory, the singer/songwriter Abiah (formerly Jeremiah Abiah) has crafted a sophomore album of emotive ballads, an audacious idea for a relative newcomer. But with delicacy and warmth, Abiah makes it work. To cement his vision Abiah adds pianist Robert Glasper, guitarist Marvin Sewell (Cassandra Wilson) and the accomplished drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. who co-produces as well. Having jazz musicians on board adds class to the project, but Abiah’s voice and music is the star. The singer toggles tone and tempo for “Doves,” a ravishing version of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” that’s sure to get some attention partly for its familiarity, but mostly it should be measured for Abiah’s capacity to reset this classic in a novel and sure fire way. The emotional drive of a song like “September” better exemplifies the strength of this artist. With a rounded-edged voice that suggests a more vulnerable Seal, Abiah’s experience singing backup for George Michael and Yolanda Adams signifies a willingness to lay his emotions out there. “Foolish Heart” is among the first three tracks, any of which would be strong singles and worthy of airplay. Concise and happily free of filler, “Life As A Ballad” (Madoh Music) makes room for one up-tempo track, “Next Time Around,” a song with a carefree gait that trades break up misery for the discovery of self-worth and forgiveness. The final allusion one might associate with Abiah would be the vocalist Lizz Wright since they both share honesty in the stories they tell, their musical palette and in the beautiful words they sing. (9 tracks; 37:37 minutes)  www.abiahmusic.com

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Thursday, August 2, 2012


A long time ago I would go to hear bassist Marcus Miller play at Seventh Avenue South, a Village jazz club owned by the Brecker Brothers, and at that time jazz fusion was super hot and Miller helped feed the fire. He was one of the coolest players on the scene and in a way, he still is. His career has flourished, enabling him to add songwriter, bandleader and producer-extraordinaire to his business card. Not only did Miller re-shape and define Miles Davis in his late period (“Tutu,” “Amandla”), his collaborations with David Sanborn and Luther Vandross made each of them superstars in their respective jazz and pop fields. Miller’s production work and guest appearances on many albums is often categorized as smooth jazz, yet his personal work encompasses more genuine jazz and authentic turns from both veteran musicians and up-and-comers.

Release of the Miles Davis stamp on June 28, 2012.
 Marcus is on the right; Herbie Hancock on left. Photo by Lawrence Ho, LA Times
“Renaissance” (Concord Jazz) finds him mixing it up with frontline trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown, alto sax player Alex Han, drummer Louis Cato, guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers, and the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition Award winner pianist Kris Bowers, plus guest vocals from Ruben Blades and Gretchen Parlato on a fizzy remake of Ivan Lins “Setembro.”  This is hard-core soul jazz, as articulate as it is funky, with a heavy dose of Miller-kissed covers like Janelle Monae’s infectious “Tightrope” (with Dr. John on vocals) and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”  The tastiest bass and deepest grooves are found on the title track, a superb jazz-fusion cut ripe with thick rhythms as well as a pounding, head-bobbing take of WAR’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.” The band is locked in tight on the riff heavy “Mr. Clean,” a track delightfully full of grade-A beats as is the wicked good “Jekyll & Hyde.” The album’s highlight is Miller’s clever “Cee-Tee-Eye,” a thumping tribute to the CTI label and a grand, musical salute complete with shivery horn solos ala Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington, and a Fender Rhodes turn by Bowers who conjures up an ersatz Bob James solo from back in the day – it’s as if he time traveled decades before he was born to learn it.

His international acclaim and reputation along with his nurturing of confident, younger players like Han (his energized sound is a sleek blend of Cannonball Adderley and Sanborn) elevates Miller to new heights. Indeed, “Renaissance” is his most cohesive recording. The band is superb – props go to Miller’s keyboardist Federico Gonzalez Pena as well – and Miller’s conversations on the bass go beyond what you’ve heard previously. If you can, try to hunt down a pricy import “Marcus Miller” Tutu Revisited” featuring trumpeter Christian Scott to hear a variation on the tunes originally made for Miles Davis. (13 tracks; 70 minutes)  www.marcusmiller.com (Note: A version of this review appears in the August 2012 issue of ICON Magazine in a slightly condensed form) www.iconmagazineonline.com

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The Loft is a cozy 60-seat performance space upstairs from the Sandi Point Bistro in Southern New Jersey where tenor saxophonist Michael Pedicin recorded his eleventh project, “Live At The Loft” (Jazz Hut Records), a lucid collection of songs associated with John Coltrane and played with deep affection by the leader. This intimate set brings out the best in Pedicin who says, “ I feel better playing live than in the studio. You’re in your element and in the moment.” He captures many fine moments on “Live” with interesting arrangements and robust rhythmic invention, performed by a band of like-minded musicians deserving wider recognition – gifted guitarist Johnnie Valentino, solid bassist Andy Lalasis, drummer Bob Schomo and pianist Jim Ridl.

Pedicin is a Philadelphia native whose 40-year career has included tours with Dave Brubeck and Pat Martino – his love affair with Coltrane is indisputable as it informs his sound and style of playing, but Pedicin is no sound-alike and his tone moves from smooth to creamy on the kick-off tune, “Theme For Ernie,” as well as an enticing Latinized version of “Like Sonny.” There’s a novel down-tempo approach to “Impressions” and the divine swing of Joey Calderazzo’s “Midnight Voyage,” an original tune originally performed by Michael Brecker, another Pendicin hero. A lovely ballad, “I Want To Talk About You” precedes the album’s closer and best tune, a handsome and modern reading of “Africa” that sums up Pedicin and his band’s intent to honor Coltrane their way and have a blast while doing so.

Pedicin is an unsung hero, well known in the Philadelphia scene, and a great saxophonist well worth discovering. I am happy to say he keeps an excellent website with up-to-date information about his music, how to purchase his CDs and performance schedule. Check it out.  (8 tracks; 57:31 minutes) www.michaelpedicin.com  On the video, Pedicin and his group perform "You Don't Know What Love Is" at the Richard Stockton College in 2009. It gives you a taste of his beautiful tone and handling of this standard. With Jim Ridl on piano, Tim Lekan on bass and Bob Shomo on drums. 

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“Portrait in Sound” (2000, Concord Records) by trombonist Steve Davis is one of those preferred jazz albums I keep on my current listening shelf and revisit occasionally. It’s an enjoyable go-to album that also features pianist Brad Mehldau and it introduced me to Davis’ engaging charts and appealing modern sound. Luckily for jazz fans Davis has maintained an active career, putting out one great recording after another and “Getting’ It Done” (Posi-Tone Records), his 16th solo album, swings hard in a most gratifying way. Davis assembles a killer rhythm section comprised of pianist Larry Willis, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Billy Williams – a New York power trio that frames the leaders sleek compositions with snap and vigor. For the front line, alto saxophonist Mike Dirubbo and trumpeter Josh Bruneau bring chops galore to the date, but the star of the show is clearly Davis whose effervescent personality on the trombone shines through every tune. Opening with a sunlit version of John Coltrane’s “Village Blues,” a regal jazz standard that tells you a lot about the faith that trombonist Steve Davis places in his band. Their interplay brings slippery grooves and a nice bass line to “The Beacon,” Blue Note infused beats to tunes like “Steppin’ Easy” and “Longview,” and straight-up post bop on the rhythm-fueled title track. Apart from the superior sonics (something you can count on with every Posi-tone release), the elegant stylings of pianist Willis and sax player DiRubbo, longtime collaborators with Davis, sharpen these sparkling arrangements. Without a doubt, “Getting’ It Done” finds Davis at his most potent; it’s an album full of creative and aural pleasures and likely ranks as Davis’ best work. (8 tracks; 57:12 minutes) www.stevedavis.info www.posi-tone.com

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“Koan” (Fresh Sound New Talent) is the sophomore effort by German-born guitarist Sebastian Noelle, a musician firmly established on the New York jazz scene who’s also a member of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society big band and a number of other distinguished NYC-based bands. A natural talent, Noelle drops eleven original tracks that are compelling and heartfelt with tunes firmly set within a modern, post-bop context, which gives Noelle a platform for enticing musical exploration. The guitarist brings together the remarkable saxophonist Loren Stillman, bassist Thomson Kneeland, drummer Tony Moreno and adds pianist George Colligan on four tunes. Colligan is the kind of heavy-hitter more players should add to their recordings. Witness his solos on “Wanderlust” and “Loophole” and you get a sense that he’s a VIP addition to any project.

Emboldened by his band and saxophonist Stillman in particular, Noelle excels at creating tight, synchronized conversations (the sweet natured “All I Need To Know”) and attractive melodies (“Lily’s Pirouettes”). There’s also something to be said for the energetic title tune, a noble track brimming with superb interplay and a groovy bass line along with Noelle’s slithery solo and Stillman’s evocative voicings. Noelle’s style combines the agile modernism of Kurt Rosenwinkel with the graceful flow of storytelling that Pat Metheny perfected, yet Noelle’s compositions soar on their own inner light and he acquits himself with poise and smart moves throughout “Koan.” (11 tracks; 60:21 minutes) www.sebastiannoelle.com

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It’s been a long 30 years since guitarist Pat Metheny has recorded with a saxophonist (Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman on ECM’s “80/81”.) He returns to the format on “Unity Band,” with a transcendent quartet of top musicians. It says a lot that Chris Potter is the saxophonist that inspired Metheny to revisit a band featuring a tenor/guitar combination. “Unity Band” (Nonesuch) continues Metheny’s brilliant strategy of assembling contrasting players that click as a whole. Here, it’s a jazz trinity of movers and shakers -- Potter on sax and bass clarinet, in-the-pocket bassist Ben Williams and Antonio Sanchez on drums – that brings Metheny’s dramatic compositions to life, like the pumping “Come And See” and blustery, hyped-up energy of “Breakdealer.”  Most tunes on “Unity Band” are hard to resist and multiple listening reveals layers of dazzling musical intricacies. Metheny best tunes wear their romanticism on their sleeve and “New Year” finds that trait in full bloom with the leader gracefully playing nylon string guitar, while “Come And See” gives us a groove-based track that swells with typical Metheny beauty. Part of Metheny’s appeal (he’s won 19 Grammy® Awards) is his fearless creativity to produce new sounds and sonic textures. “Unity Band” shines in this regard. The album is masterly programmed and sustained -- ballads brush up against jubilant riffs and whether Metheny is playing electric, acoustic, synths or his steampunky bit of mechanical wizardry called Orchestrionics on “Signals,” this dense and rewarding endeavor preserves the guitarist’s unmistakable sound with a fresh band that continuously slingshots the album to remarkable highs. www.patmetheny.com

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