JAZZ IN SPACE: April 2013

Monday, April 1, 2013


photo: Janette Beckman
The Blue Note debut of the pop and jazz singer José James, No Beginning, No End, so resolutely taps into the vein of classic American soul music that he invites impulsive comparison to artists like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Al Green.

The Minneapolis-born and Brooklyn based James, 33, has been an underground hero of sorts, laying down his analog vocals over digitized electro-grooves on 2008’s excellent (and bass boosted) Dreamer and last year’s Blackmagic, two albums that smartly married jazz to the pulse and beats of hip hop. In between, he briefly detoured for 2010’s deflating “For All We Know” (Impulse!) that paired him with Belgian pianist Jef Neve for a set of jazz standards. Fast-forward to 2013 where James seems to have found his footing by confessing straight up that this album sums up how I feel about music right now. I don’t want to be confined to any particular style. I decided I didn’t want to be considered a jazz singer anymore and that was really freeing.”

Produced independently and recorded without a contract in place (Blue Note picked it up for distribution after its completion,) the album features some of James’s longtime band mates – drummer Richard Spaven, keyboardist Grant Windsor, trombonist Corey King, trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, and guitarist Jeremy Most. But it’s the collaboration with Grammy® winning pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Pino Palladino, RG Experiment drummer Chris Dave and guitarist Emily King that clarifies James’s vision where tunes like “Trouble” (a slick Sly Sylvester-like jam) and the low slung funk of  “Vanguard” are filled with keyboard vamps, thickened drum beats and 70’s style bass lines. The gospel fueled “Do You Feel” features up and coming pianist Kris Bowers who takes a magisterial solo, underscored by a pulsating organ that shimmers throughout. For the swift, danceable “Sword + Gun,” the French Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra duets with James on a percussive tune striking for its infectious rhythm and a brightly tuned horn section.

As genres, R&B and soul run deep through American culture, creating experiential and cross-generational touchstones for everyday people. Time will tell whether or not No Beginning, No End will connect the same way for listeners, yet James’s writing and singing surge with confidence and in the end, his musical truths – delivered with soft-edged vocals and innate soulfulness -- penetrate all the more deeply for it. (11 tracks; 59 minutes)

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L to R: Ben Williams, Christian Scott, Logan Richardson, Matt Stevens.  Photo by Nick Bewsey
The weather outside was frightful, but the sleet and cold rain didn’t dissuade several hundred of us from standing outside New York’s La Poisson Rouge on February 26 to hear the immensely engaging NEXT Collective, a band that brings together rising talent and modern jazz power players (saxophonists Logan Richardson, Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens, pianists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire Williams) playing their own unrestricted jams of pop and hip hop tunes from their debut release, Cover Art (Concord Jazz). Most of these youngish guys are leaders in their own right and as a band they plug in to a zeitgeist, bringing diverse listeners together through instrumental jazz fused with funk, electronica and alt-rock.

Concord’s Chris Dunn put the group together, but the project quickly became something more. “There was a point in the sessions for this album,” says Dunn, “when I looked around the room and suddenly realized the level of talent packed in there together, the cream of the new crop, so to speak—and how much they are invested in jazz and also soaked in the music going on around them.”  The concept is roughly analogous to Marvel’s The Avenger’s, engineered in reverse -- of the artists in the Collective, each of them have either released solo records already or plan to.

Cover Art takes 10 tunes by Bon Iver, Dido, D’Angelo, Pearl Jam and others and divides the arranging duties among the Collective. Protean trumpeter Christian Scott stuns on two tunes that he arranged (a fiercely lyrical version of Kanye West and Jay Z’s “No Church In The Wild, with Scott playing Frank Ocean’s vocal lines) and Drake’s “Marvin’s Room,” a delicately shaped ballad gilded by Scott’s muted horn. Bassist Ben Williams reshapes N.E.R.D’s affecting “Fly Or Die” with a strong backbeat; beefy guitar licks and a dancing bass line conspire to make his rendition especially tuneful. With saxophonists Logan Richardson on alto and Walter Smith III on tenor, a tight frontline with harmonics to burn and drummer Jamire Williams (his spacey take on Stereolab’s “Refractions In The Plastic Pulse” adds phase-shifting and dappled beats to great effect,) NEXT has a confident, juggernaut approach to delivering music with both gravitas and chill out vibes. The Collective successfully transcends demographics delivering music tight enough for those with Beats headphones as well as traditional minded listeners with an appetite for giddy eclecticism.

The CD release gig concluded after a fleeting hour-plus set and while everyone expected an encore, the DJ signaled the wrap up by spinning “Afro Blue” from Robert Glasper’s Grammy winning R&B project, “Black Radio,” and so we filed out into the rain with the buzz of NEXT Collective still in our heads.  (10 tracks; 56 minutes / the download on iTunes features an expanded album with four bonus tracks.)

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photo by Todd Williams
The inquisitive and visionary drummer/leader Kendrick Scott and his band, Oracle, tap his spirituality as the basis for Conviction (Concord Jazz), an exhilarating exploration of contemporary jazz. Scott lets straight-ahead beats collide with the modern gloss of contemporary sounds, defining his recording as an experiential hang – the album has no breaks as one tune segues into the next. The unexpected vocals of guitarist Alan Hampton (a singer/songwriter in the style of Jesse Harris) adds heft to the band’s cover of Sufjan Steven’s “Too Much” and again on “Serenity,” a prayer-like ballad co-written by Hampton and Scott.

As a sophomore effort, Scott’s musical conviction extends to a set of choice originals and a tune by Herbie Hancock (“I Have A Dream) executed with nuanced style by his grounded band -- bassist Joe Sanders, pianist/keyboardist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Mike Moreno and saxophonist John Ellis. As a group, Oracle purrs like a finely tuned engine with Scott as a natural leader, employing smoothly confident percussion that’s never breaks its flow. Having previously toured with both The Crusaders and trumpeter Terence Blanchard earlier in his career, Scott brings a sharp focus and disciplined craftsmanship to this artful recording along with some tight grooves that sonically endure. (11 tracks; 58 minutes)

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Inspired by Ray Charles’ hugely popular Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Madeleine Peyroux’s Blue Room is like an extra down-filled comforter you want to curl up under – the recording is split between happy-go-lucky road songs and aching ballads, all soothing to the ear and splendidly appropriate for rainy days and Mondays. With her longtime producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Luciana Souza) and MVP band members (pianist/organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Dean Parks, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose) back for more, Peyroux sets her lustrous voice and sympathetic reading to tunes that were once provocative (Charles’ 1962 recording stirred racial emotions on both sides by blending a large white chorus on songs originally penned for white radio.) But Charles’ renditions endured and these days stand relatively free of politics, providing Peyroux an opportunity to coo her distinctive vocals over a lush program – Vince Mendoza arranges an effective string orchestra for most tracks.

While there’s not much difference from Peyroux’s previous stellar albums, Blue Room mixes mid-tempo tunes like “Bye Bye Love” with others by Buddy Holly and Leonard Cohen (the classic “Bird On A Wire.”) Like Billie Holiday, with whom she’s still unfairly compared to, Peyroux conveys heartbreak (the gorgeous “Born To Lose”) with pitch perfect authenticity. Randy Newman’s “Guilty” highlights Peyroux as a femme fatale, but the best is the after hours closer by Warren Zevon. “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” bathes the singer in the dappled glow of candlelight, awash in vulnerability as she sings with clear eyed conviction: 

And I’m trying to find a boy who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me. 

As the tune fades and the strings swirl around her smoldering voice, Madeleine Peyroux drifts into shadow with her heart extinguished but hope intact. (10 tracks; 43 minutes)

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Back in 1991, saxophonist Eric Alexander competed against Chris Potter and Joshua Redman in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition, where he came in second and launched his recording career the same year with Straight Up (Delmark.) Thirty-three solo albums later, this astonishingly prolific straight-ahead musician slows things down for a particularly enriching sonic experience entitled Touching (HighNote.) Over the years, Alexander has recorded dates with great jazz pianists (Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, John Hicks) but none has proved to be as valuable as Harold Mabern, an intuitive two-fisted musical force with an appealing lyrical style.

As a ballad album, Touching is flush with unexpected charm helped along by the leader’s first-rate quartet that also includes bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. The tunes are not heard all that often – Bobby Lyle’s title track originally appeared on a Stanley Turrentine album – and despite this being an all-ballads program, the quartet zeroes in on the innate soulfulness within each tune. While the highlight is inevitably Coltrane’s beautiful “Central Park West” the album showcases an astute and highly musical band that brings a refined sense of swing to every track. Engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, Touching sounds perfect, the music sublime. (8 tracks; 49 minutes)

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BG with Art Blakey photo by Arthur Elgort / BG solo photo by Ron Hudson

Benny Green was the pianist in 1980’s bands led by Art Blakey, Betty Carter and Ray Brown, as well as a prolific sideman before establishing his own dazzling solo career on Blue Note Records (doubtless a dream-come-true for this champion of the Blue Note sound.) For his 13th solo recording, Magic Beans (Sunnyside Records), Green calls on the dynamic bassist Peter Washington and urbane drummer Kenny Washington, best known for their peerless work as members of pianist Bill Charlap’s trio. Green concocts a tasty program of familiar-sounding post-bop workouts, retaining both the hard swinging energy of his musical heroes and illustrates why he is indeed a Jazz Messenger.

Imagine a student who absorbs all the best quintet, quartet and trio dates produced by Blue Note, learning the pianist’s solos and filtering that music and playing style through your own imagination. That’s what Green sounds like he’s doing here with tracks named “Kenny Drew,” “Jackie McLean” and “Harold Land.” To Green's credit, his tunes work are more reverential in spirit than derivative. Latin vamps, the bouncing and pop of swing, swift rhythmic interplay and sensual harmonics alá Horace Silver (“La Portuguesa”) dance throughout the album. Written over the course of an afternoon, the tunes showcase the best qualities of Benny Green -- a master craftsman and, despite his love affair for a legendary old school sound, a true original, too. (10 tracks; 45 minutes)

From Benny’s blog via his website, a beautiful statement: i have always wanted to belong and be included and be a part of The Music, black-american music, Jazz. anyone who has ever gotten to know me or been in my home, knows exactly what i’m about. i love classic Blue Note quintet records, and the sound and feeling of a trumpet-saxophone front line like Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley or Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean, is what i love, and it inspires the music i write. i am a Jazz Messenger, my life is dedicated to Jazz.

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