JAZZ IN SPACE: October 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013


--> Tierney Sutton is a singularly modern chanteuse. She combines the bright diction of a cabaret vocalist with the guts of a jazz singer, one with a strong instinct for improvisation and rhythm. On her tenth recording, a tribute to singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, After Blue stands out as one of Sutton’s most personal and revealing projects. She divulges that Mitchell’s Both Sides Now album is an important and favorite recording and considers it to be equal in stature to Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours album and Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin.

Sutton’s longtime band, including pianist Christian Jacob and drummer RayBrinker, had scheduling conflicts that prevented them from participating. Filling in, former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine and keyboardist Larry Goldings (Madeleine Peyroux, James Taylor) along with guitarist Kevin Axt, flutist Hubert Laws and The Turtle Island String Quartet align as stars in Sutton’s constellation of sound. Sutton approaches Mitchell’s “All I Want,” “Court and Spark” and “Big Yellow Taxi” with devotional respect, cleverly squaring their pop origins within the jazz realm. Yet, it’s Sutton’s take on “Don’t Go To Strangers” and “Both Sides Now” where voice, instrument and mood effortlessly coalesce and forge a deeper emotional bond with the listener. The spare arrangements don’t provide any cover for Sutton and she doesn’t need any. Sutton’s sensuous voice digs into this material that often places her with a sole guitar or piano, her voice and feelings laid bare. (12 tracks; 58 minutes)

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A serious minded jazz pianist and A-list player, Orrin Evans is a strong talent from Philadelphia who joins a long line of jazz musicians that come from the city of brotherly love. Since his debut recording in 1994, Evans’ resume reveals an ever-growing list of ambitious achievements as a recording artist, producer, bandleader, composer and teacher, and his current numerous groups include the Captain Black Big Band, Tar Baby, LuvPark, the LikeMind Collective and more side man gigs on record and in performance than one can count.

Evans’ 20th album overall and seventh for the independent Criss Cross label, ...It Was Beauty is a trio record whose title will be familiar to anyone who remembers the ending to the original film version of King Kong. The album’s playlist is as restless as it is varied, with alternating bassists and drummers (primarily, Eric Revis and Donald Edwards) to give voice to what Evans calls “the intensity of sensitivity.” The date leads with “Black Elk Speaks,” a tune with a choice Herbie Nichols-like melody and an angular form that stretches time and tempo. From there, it’s a survey of compositional styles that may not flow as well as Evans’ previous record (the superb Flip The Script, Posi-tone, 2012) but nonetheless offers a compelling listening experience. From the exotic beauty of “African Song” that Evans adorns with expressive waves of improvisation to the mischievous glee of “Dorm Life,” a quirky blues, the band is sharp with chops aplenty. The percussive, finger-popping groove of Ornette Coleman’s “Blue Connotation” contrasts beautifully with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” which is slowed down Shirley-horn style and gives one a chance to savor Evans deeply lyrical style. Evans ends this eclectic album with a duo read of an Andrae Crouch spiritual (“My Tribute”) that’s touching, sentimental and delivers on the truest meaning of the recording’s title. (10 tracks; 58 minutes)

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  Ahmad Jamal is a true original with a style all his own, and he’s been influencing jazz musicians, past and present, ever since he recorded But Not For Me: Ahmad Jamal Live at The Pershing Lounge in 1958 that catapulted him into the history books. Capturing the same flavor and vibe from that early date, Jamal’s Saturday Morning spotlights the pianist and his longtime trio, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, on a clutch of original tunes that are as intriguing and sonically wonderful as one could want.

In addition to his captivating take on Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good,” Saturday Morning is a perfect way to reacquaint yourself with the pianist whose percussive rhythms and elastic time signatures make you want to get up and dance. With plenty of space for Jamal, Veal and Riley to weave tight, concentric improvisations from the briefest motifs, the record is a breezy ride highlighted by funky dynamics (“The Line”) a tribute to a fellow jazz master named Horace (“Silver”) and a replay of “One,” a staple in Jamal’s repertoire built on an indelible hook and deft trio interplay. Recorded in February, 2013, the originals make for a dazzling celebration of upbeat musical genres -- ska, reggae and a wisp of second like swing can appear in a flash, then dissolve on Jamal’s whim. The strong and memorable title cut echoes the easy groove of his classic “Poinciana” and where for more than ten minutes, Jamal exercises continuous invention, massaging the hook and its chorus over and again, playfully adjusting his touch to boost the bass notes or let notes fade with a feather-like touch on the keys. He hits his improvisational stride nearly five minutes in, releasing pent-up grace notes like “fireworks from the soul.” That’s an apt description from a poem in the liner notes that inspired Saturday Morning, which concludes “Life is simple, why complicate it?” Indeed, Jamal has never sounded better or clearer in his intent. (11 tracks; 60 minutes)

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photo by Shawn Peters
Singer and songwriter Gregory Porter’s baritone is one the most captivating instruments in present day jazz. Deep and sonorous, it’s matched by the affability and charisma of the singer who grew up in his mothers’ church and cites the Bakersfield Southern Gospel Sound as well as his family’s Nat King Cole record collection as key influences. On his two previous records for the independent Motema label, Water and Be Good (the latter was this writer’s picks for the best jazz vocal album in 2012,) Porter established himself as a modern troubadour and most directly carries on the tradition of Bill Withers and Sam Cooke by writing his own uplifting, meaningful and positive songs.

Liquid Spirit (Blue Note) keeps Porter’s strong production team and musicians in place, with original compositions that freely merge jazz with soul, gospel and R&B that’s beautifully exercised on the title cut -- a gospel-tinged tune fueled by hand-claps and a punchy Les McCann style piano break. Porter is a resounding master of the ballad, pitching the lyric to “Water Under Bridges” with a direct and sobering emotional understanding:

Somebody told me to get over it
it’s like water under bridges that have already burned
they say it gets better and gets easier
do you remember the days we used to spend
memories so strong it keeps me from moving on
if I could go back our worse days are better than loneliness

Underscored by pianist and arranger Chip Crawford, Porter is matter-of-fact in his style and his words penetrate in their simplicity and directness.

Porter’s songs have a topical currency, their wealth made of allusions to sun and sky, water and air drifts where a kite can take flight. It’s these natural elements that tie his music together and it makes Porter a powerhouse of a singer/songwriter and storyteller. Among so many good songs, “Hey Laura,” the deep groove of “Musical Genocide” and Withers-like anthem “Free” stand out from Porter’s passionate delivery and stalwart groove. The again, a remake of Ramsey Lewis’ The In Crowd” suits Porter especially well, like a self-contained theme song that lets the singer take a well-deserved peacock strut. You can link to a vid of the title track here (but you have to watch an annoying brief beer commercial first.)

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Like the nocturnal bird they’re named after, Owl Trio creates after-hour flights of fancy with a deceptively simple approach to making music. For their debut release, guitarist Lage Lund, saxophonist Will Vinson and bassist Orlando le Fleming take unhurried reads of standards (“I Should Care,” Coltrane’s “Dear Lord,” “From This Moment On”) with a reverential approach and keen desire to peel away any staid impressions of these songs. On them and four originals by the bassist, the trio excels at playing these tunes with affection for melody and lyricism. The musicians already knew each other well and their familiarity strikes a perfect balance between Vinson’s buttery tone, le Fleming’s rich and nimble bass and Lund’s acoustically warm fingerings. Recorded and produced by the illustrious Jimmy Katz in an abandoned Brooklyn church (the sonics are killer on this disc,) the Owl Trio obviously has a love affair with their material and though the album may not have the lilt of a bossa nova record, the trio conveys the same warmth, beauty and good feeling with their like-minded interplay and fleet performances. (11 tracks; 62 minutes) www.owltrio.com

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Master drummer Steve Gadd, a ubiquitous session player in the 80s whose novel brush strokes and shuffle beats added deep grooves and cache to recordings by Steely Dan, Paul Simon and jazzers like Bob James, assembles members of James Taylor’s band (keyboardist Larry Goldings, guitarist Michael Landau, trumpeter Walt Fowler and bassist Jimmy Johnson) for a strong session of easygoing tunes that recalls the spirit of Stuff, Gadd’s premier fusion group from back in the day. Though a touch mellower, the Gadditude quartet stretches out on urbane yet earthy originals, a hallmark of Gadd’s style and previous solo works. The mysterious slinky vibe of “Africa,” the cool-blue vibe captured by Goldings’ Fender Rhodes solo on “Ask Me” and the REM flavored melody on “Cavaliero” sound sweeter on repeated spins, but two numbers penned by Keith Jarrett, “Country” and “The Windup,” give the drummer innumerable moments to rally his signature riffs, brushwork and martial rhythms with aplomb. (9 tracks; 55 minutes) www.bfmjazz.com

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