JAZZ IN SPACE: July 2013

Monday, July 1, 2013


Noah Preminger is a saxophonist of consequence, fully deserving of the positive critical response and appreciative audiences that flock to his appearances around New York and elsewhere. His relaxed, low-key leadership style on the bandstand offers up an easy-going vibe and he hosts his gigs with an affable charm. As a performer, Preminger is all in, sporting a sweetly burnished tone that smacks of classic tenor out of the Ben Webster or John Coltrane tradition, but Preminger speaks his own modern language that’s fresh and exciting. For the last couple of years, the saxophonist has been singularly focused on his exceptional working band comprised of guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Colin Stranahan, work-shopping new compositions at every opportunity. All that creativity, passion and interplay is fully present on Preminger’s terrific third record, Haymaker (Palmetto Records.)

Noah Preminger, photo by Nick Bewsey
The album title comes from a boxing term meaning a “wild, knock punch” and the album accomplishes that with affecting realness and poise. Turns out that boxing is a Preminger pastime. A tune called “Morgantown” has a slippery lyricism that Preminger and crew negotiate with a steady hand, complete with an irresistible drum break for drummer Stranahan. Preminger bobs and weaves through “15,000,” named after his skydiving experience in New Zealand, and twists the feel good hook of Dave Matthews’ anthem “Don’t Drink The Water” into a rock-fueled thrasher. While the album is mostly a heady brew of originals (plus a particularly good tune by ace-guitarist Monder called “Animal Planet”) Preminger has a way with ballads that few of his contemporaries can match. “My Blues For You,” an after hours track, catches Preminger’s horn floating like helium over an aching melody. And the saxophonist smolders on a fleeting, misty-eyed version of “Tomorrow,” the standard from the musical Annie. Who would have thought that a boxer could play a tune with such tenderness?  

Preminger sounds both liberated and solidly confident on Haymaker, and more revealing of himself through tunes about life experiences that matter – if you like his music as much as I do, we’re fortunate as listeners that his 27-year-old soul has so many more stories to tell. (10 tracks; 58 minutes)
Ben Monder, Matt Pavolka, Noah Preminger, Colin Stranahan, photo by Nick Bewsey, October, 2012

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A one-of-a-kind pianist and performer, you never know what Eliane Elias will do next. The Brazilian native is an indefatigable interpreter of song, effortlessly shifting between styles and moods. In concert, she has a story behind every tune and infuses her playing with a party-like groove, yet she remains a consummate musician with a deep, soulful vibe that she always brings to the material. Over the course of many albums, she has dabbled in pop, lounge, Jobim tributes and straight-ahead styles, most recently for the ECM label on the affecting instrumental favorite from 2012, Swept Away. She can still surprise, which happens frequently on I Thought About You: A Tribute To Chet Baker (Concord Jazz.)

Produced in part and arranged by Elias, every hit associated with Baker swings with a touch of either Brazilian or bossa nova rhythms, supported by a first rate band of Brazilian and American musicians like bassist (and Elias’s husband) Marc Johnson, bravura trumpeter Randy Brecker and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. Besides the rich vamps that fulfill comfy, head-bobbing versions of the title track and “This Can’t Be Love,” the album’s spirited charm speaks directly to Elias’ precise vocals and enthralling piano playing whether on lush ballads or mid-tempo gems like “That Old Feeling.” The biggest surprise is that Elias hasn’t played up on Baker’s innate vulnerability, but rather celebrates his charisma through her own voice and melodic invention. Sultry, sexy and often endearing, I Thought About You is definitely one of the best recordings Eliane Elias has ever made. (14 tracks; 55 minutes)

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At his CD release gig at the Jazz Standard in NYC last month, one of the things that guitarist Gilad Hekselman revealed to me about the making of his fourth album This Just In was that “all of the pieces were recorded with the band together in the studio, without even the separation of booths,” which is a significant distinction since it creates an immediacy and creative bond between musicians – something that comes through loud and clear on this recording. Central to the album’s success is the communication that Hekselman has with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, two of the most versatile sidemen in New York as well as tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who plays on three tracks.

Besides his role as an in demand sideman for Anat Cohen, Chris Potter and Esperanza Spalding, the Israeli native has wowed critics and listeners alike with his guitar chops. His strikingly original material creates sounds similar to Kurt Rosenwinkel and Pat Metheny, but Hekselman weaves his own fresh textures and colors into songs like “March Of The Sad Ones,” a tune with a low-pitched groove under a multi-cultural melody that pulls you into its moment. Hekselman burns on jam-like originals, but his covers of Alan Parson’s “Eye In The Sky” and “Nothing Personal” (by the late Don Grolnick and popularized by Michael Brecker) are bursting with good feelings. Throughout the disc, Gilmore, the grandson of legendary drummer Roy Haynes, plays beats that spill over the soundstage with characteristic aplomb. He’s energized and always tight.

The arch concept behind This Just In is that Hekselman strings his tunes along as newsworthy items as if coming across a news crawl and some of the album’s razzle-dazzle comes from the electro-acoustic dialogue between the guitarist and Gilmore, who create a juicy friction on the five brief “Newsflash” interstitials, a mainstay on hip-hop and pop records that find a natural fit here. Overall, the album gives us a more assertive and looser Hekselman, as if the material was freed from its mooring and boldly steered into choppier waters, albeit with the leader firmly in control. (13 tracks; 51 minutes)

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2013 has seen a bounty of solo piano releases with high profile recordings by John Medeski and Michel Camilo (both for the Okeh/Sony Masterworks label,) the prodigious Marc Cary (a tribute to singer Abbey Lincoln) and West Coast veteran Mike Wofford among the worthy offerings. Each of these players has a unique voice along with a personalized style that produces colors and shadings to their compositions to bring meaning to the material.

photo by Brad Buckman
As ambitious as he is talented, jazz pianist GeoffreyKeezer has made an equally absorbing effort, The Heart Of The Piano (Motema,) an album that fuses his musical ideas with the many personal connections Keezer has made throughout his career. At 42, his experience is highlighted with sideman gigs for bands by bassist Ray Brown, trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson in addition to his own substantial records as a leader and those with vibes player Joe Locke. Heart taps the “melody, energy and groove” – qualities that distinguish Keezer’s versatility. His inner strength, a relentless core of creativity, gives subtle power to unexpected tunes by Rush (“Limelight,”) and Alanis Morrisette (Still.”) Keezer even includes “My Heart Is Like a Red Red Rose” based on Eva Cassidy’s beautiful version. Keezer's improvisations are gratifying and energetic, slowing down to bow at the edge of New Age on Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk To Me” or seizing the wit and edginess of “New York,” written for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with whom Keezer played. Great song choices combined with Keezer’s virtuosity and a wonderfully recorded piano equals another unqualified success in Keezer’s discography. (10 tracks; 50 minutes) updated July 10, 2011

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He may be off the radar for a lot of listeners, but age and experience sets saxophonist and vocalist Bob Mover apart from other jazz musicians, mainly due to his extensive sideman experience with Chet Baker and Charles Mingus that informs his present day sound -- one that’s front and center on his soulful double-disc My Heart Tells Me (Motema.) As a saxophonist who’s adept on tenor, alto and soprano, Mover crisscrosses straight-up bebop style and no nonsense standards with off-kilter harmonics and makes it all swing in an exhilarating direction. And that should put him on your radar.

The set is neatly divided between Mover’s vocals on the first disc covering tunes like the rhumba-inflected “So Near And Yet So Far,” “Penthouse Serenade” and an earnestly expressive version of “By Myself” with a dream quartet (pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw and Steve Williams on drums,) while disc two expands the line up by adding trumpeter Josh Evans, Steve Hall on tenor and swaps out Williams for Victor Lewis on drums. Mover’s sandpaper rasp of a voice does indeed evoke Chet Baker; he has a comforting, late night croon that’s direct and true. Take a listen to his melancholic “You Must Believe In Spring” and you’re reminded of that hopeless romantic character that Baker played so well.   

Disc two elicits a great deal of traditional bop sounds with five Mover originals, complete with quick changes, tight improvisations and a beautiful spot to hear Cranshaw work his magic on bass on “Chet’s Chum.” Trumpeter Josh Evan was only 23 at the time of this recording and his presence lights a small fire within the group sound akin to Art Farmer or Don Cherry according to Mover.

Fellow saxophonist, NEA Jazz Master and teacher Phil Woods provides the liner notes, concisely noting each track and Mover’s ample chops as well as the rhythm section to die for. Kenny Barron, who duos with Mover on “Gone with The Wind” and “You’ve Changed” is superlative throughout the two discs and their interplay suggests the glory days when Barron played with Stan Getz -- that tightness and easy communication is evident between Barron and Mover. Mover has released nine records as a leader, played with a who’s who of jazz greats and keeps his pulse on contemporary sounds (collaborating with Esperanza Spalding, for instance.) My Heart Tells Me is a rewarding session and the perfect introduction to Mover’s heart-and-soul style. Whether you’re in the mood for Cole Porter and after hour torch songs or straight-ahead bebop fire with an agile band, Mover’s got you covered. (16 tracks; 54 minutes / 47 minutes)

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