JAZZ IN SPACE: October 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


The clarinetist and multi-reedist Anat Cohen has a sound that speaks in an array of brilliant colors. As a performer and leader, (she recently kicked off the release of “Claroscuro” on Anzic Records with a six night gig at the Village Vanguard, a comfortable space that she called “one big living room”) Cohen knows how to pull a listener in, feeding on the attention of her audience as much as her quartet to rapturously blow through standards old and new and absorbing originals, too. She’s a charmer who connects emotionally and you walk away both thrilled and thoroughly entertained – all of which is nicely conveyed on the disc. 

In Spanish the art term “Claroscuro” means the play between light and dark and these are the sonic textures she weaves throughout the album, with an assist from a band of empathetic musicians -- the grooving pianist Jason Lindner, ace bassist Joe Martin and a drummer with magical beats, Daniel Freedman. This fine group (all movers and shakers on the NY music scene) sets its rhythmic compass to Lindner’s vamp on the lead tune, “Anat’s Dance,” an melodious original with a grounded vibe that tips its hat to Cohen’s spirited flow and it defines the group’s overall dynamic.

Cohen and her crew play tunes that fan out across cultures, spotlighted by the Creole beat-step-beat on “La Vie En Rose,” an Armstrong infused gem that’s delightfully underscored with the vocal growl of trombonist Wycliffe Gordon who sits in here and again on the NOLA-kissed “And The World Weeps.” There’s Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare,” an imposing title for a rather affable tune (with guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera) and “Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser,” a Brazilian blast that flaunts a deep groove and joyous chorus. It’s a composition made famous in the 70’s by Milton Nascimento, but the band grabs it for themselves with inimitable chops and fervor. Cohen has said “when you share music with people, it should always be a celebration. Making music with people for people, that is a gift. And there should always be joy in a gift.” Fittingly, the album closes with “The Wedding,” a tune by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim that Cohen performs on tenor saxophone. With its backbeat and gospel flavor, the band adopts a soulful tone that’s reverential and wondrous, making room for Cohen to bring it home with love and happiness.  (11 tracks; 67:34 minutes) www.anatcohen.com

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Jazz pianist George Cables is one of the great ones. As a composer, accompanist and leader for 40 years, he’s a triple threat with an appeal that can be traced through his extensive discography as a sideman, but it’s his key role in bands led by Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon and Bobby Hutcherson that has helped solidify his status. With more than 25 solo records to his name, Cables has not only performed with some of the biggest names in jazz, now he’s worthy of being one himself.

“My Muse” is a trio date and Cables’ first gig with HighNote Records, the esteemed East Coast label with a focus on straight-ahead swing and a solid roster of performers like Houston Person and Cedar Walton. This debut could be thematically bittersweet since it’s a salute to Helen Wray, Cables’ recently passed wife and his partner for more than 28 years, but the music is righteously celebratory with Cables, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis romping through wonderful iterations of “You’re My Everything,” “You Taught My Heart To Sing” and “My One And Only Love.” The album is bookended by solo takes of Cables’ gentle “Lullaby,” a theme he always plays in concert along with one of his best known compositions, “Helen’s Song,” played here with a temperate groove that’s resoundingly uplifting. Elsewhere, Cables’ removes the treacle from “The Way We Were” and twists it into a cocktail lounge gem ala late 50’s Ahmad Jamal. “My Muse” is one of the best swing trio dates out there, superbly played and programmed with timeless music and appeal. (11 tracks; 61:18 minutes)

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Good news! Harold Mabern, the unsung jazz pianist who’s under recorded and whose discography is frustratingly either too hard to find or out of print, is back on the scene. A hard bop and swinging accompanist since the 1960’s whose two-fisted attack is exhilarating (just look at his pair of mitts on the cover art), Mabern can be heard on Blue Note dates with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley to more than eight contemporary jazz records with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. Mabern is a modest man and is the first to admit he loves the sideman role (“I just always wanted to be the best sideman I could be.”) So it’s eventful when he returns with a solo recording and here we have the wonderful “Mr. Lucky,” an album of tunes associated with Sammy Davis, Jr. Mabern had been carrying around the idea of a Davis themed album for more than 20 years and the renditions of tunes like “Soft Shoe Training,” I’ve Gotta Be Me” and “What Kind Of Fool Am I” take on a life of their own, shaped by the Mabern & Alexander team in winning fashion. The youthful Alexander plays like a melodic freight train, charging ahead with endless creative phrasing while Mabern’s solos flow with circular rhythmic energy and positivity. The stalwart bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth round out the rhythm team with a precise and soulful feel for the material. Harold Mabern is a pianist with tremendous appeal and an instantly recognizable sound that shines brightly on the illustrious “Mr. Lucky.” Warmly recommended. (9 tracks; 54:20 minutes)  

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Diana Krall’s crossover appeal is undeniable. She was in fine form for her June stop in Lancaster, PA on her Summer Nights 2012 concert tour, charming the crowd with stories of her childhood in Vancouver while interspersing her typically deft renditions of standards, show tunes and Brazilian songs from her best-selling albums. Krall projects an elegance and sophistication on stage, her persona wrapped in a wry, knowing sensuality, but she’s quick to remind her audience that she’s just a small town girl who made it, sharing self-deprecating stories about being a mom to twin boys and her life with husband Elvis Costello. Most touching though were her interludes about the old tunes that she and her father would listen to on LPs during her visits home, songs of the 20’s and 30’s by Bix Beiderbecke and others that are not quite standards but nonetheless populist music played with cheer and barroom enthusiasm. Curiously, Ms Krall didn’t mention that these tunes would be the focus of “Glad Rag Doll” (Verve).

On “Doll,” Krall presses the pause button, putting her jazz combo, strings, lush standards and Claus Ogerman arrangements on hold, in the same way that her 2004 release “The Girl In The Other Room” bluntly departed from the Great American Songbook. Krall calls the new album her “song and dance record,” a surprising effort that introduces us to the stripped down pleasures of analog style tunes by Doc Pomus and other rough-hewn gems from lesser-known songwriters.  Produced by T-Bone Burnett (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”) “Doll” brings guitarists Marc Ribot, Burnett and Howard Coward together with bassist Dennis Crouch, guitarists Bryan Sutton and Colin Linden, drummer Jay Bellerose and keyboardist Keefus Green.

With charismatic aplomb and a mean stride piano technique, Krall takes to these tavern style songs with an easy conviction. Guitarist Ribot is a notable soloist and known among the avant-garde jazz scene, and his role here is to add both authenticity and a veneer of electric guitar grunge (“There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth The Salt Of My Tears”) with fuzz tones dialed high into the mix. Krall enthralls on sweet natured songs with expressive titles (“Just Like A Butterfly That’s Caught In The Rain,”) wistful interludes (“Wide River To Cross,”) optimistic ditties (“You Know – Everything’s Made For Love”) and the very pretty title tune, spare in its instrumentation yet emotionally ripe.

With her superstar status and record sales to match, Krall trades her chanteuse image for a new one that takes its cue from the album’s cover photograph, one that’s sure to raise eyebrows. Yet, there’s plenty to enjoy and appreciate here. You’ll have to put away the chardonnay or pinot this time out – “Glad Rag Doll” remakes Diana Krall as a bourbon and blues singer and a fine one at that. (13 tracks; 58:08 minutes)
Note: The online version version of this review differs from the print edition in ICON Magazine. Arranger Johnny Mandel was replaced with Claus Ogerman.

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Photo by Hendrick Dietrich, Montreux Festival 2012
“Esprit de Four” (Heads Up) is an album of soft licks and feathery sonic passages born from a long established creative template by the 25 year old smooth jazz collective, Fourplay, comprised of pianist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Chuck Loeb. If it doesn’t reach the heights of their 2011 release, “Let’s Touch The Sky,” (that also marked Loeb’s debut) it certainly provides fans with first-rate tunes and lush harmonic passages that cater to sophisticated pop tastes. The sleek and lightly funky “Venus” and the title track, both composed by the one-of-a-kind tunesmith Mason, weave their melodies to tell a story with gentle twists and turns that showcase the best qualities of these veteran musicians – slick interplay between James and East, with masterful runs by Loeb and precise percussive fills by Mason. Reflecting the band’s and James’ huge following in Japan, Loeb’s superior lead off tune, “December Dream,” and James’ compelling instrumental version of “Put Our Hearts Together” written in tribute to the victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan are the type of ear-friendly tracks that cross cultures. Other tracks (“Firefly” “Sonnymoon” and the imitative “Logic Of Love”) may likely play better on stage since the quartet’s upbeat live performances are built around virtuosic turns. But with each of their recordings, Fourplay always stands above their peers and “Esprit de Four” nicely reinforces their musical brotherhood, offering state-of-the-art smooth jazz for discerning fans. (10 tracks; 55 minutes) Fourplay maintains one of the best websites in the industry: www.fourplayjazz.com

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The sophomore album from the 24-year old pianist, Julian Shore, is a delight for a couple of reasons. It’s an album of modern jazz songs that anybody can listen and relate to, the result of the collaboration between singer and lyricist Alexa Barchini and Shore, who wrote all the music and gives the tunes shape and purpose. A fluid player with a sure touch and modernist appeal, Shore has played with singer Gretchen Parlato, guitarists Gilad Hekselman, drummer Kendrick Scott and saxophonist Noah Preminger – in other words, all the bright and notable players on the NY jazz scene. The other reason “Filaments” (Tone Rogue) stands out is the contribution from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel who plays on three outstanding tracks, giving heft to Shore’s compositions by adding an ethereal luster and sonic texture. Apart from the trio-based “I Will If You Will” and the trio plus Preminger ballad, the lush and very beautiful “Venus,” “Give” is likely the album’s strongest tune, made great by its solid melodic theme, nicely arranged horns, a deft backbeat by Tommy Crane and Rosenwinkel’s boss solo. Barchini and Shelly Tzarafi, two singers who share a harmonious capacity for emotional directness, provide the vocal duties. Words are whispered and sometimes cooed, and out of that breathy mix comes Shore’s precise, naturalistic phrasing. His solos are clean and graceful and he gives his band (bassist Phil Donin also stands out) generous room that encourages sparkling interplay. A good effort all around – Shore is definitely one to watch. (10 tracks; 55:42 minutes) www.julianshore.com 

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