JAZZ IN SPACE: December 2013

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Powerhouse records were released in 2013 from some of the most respected jazz musicians (Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Tomasz Stanko and Chucho Valdes) and I heard and studied about 150 releases throughout the year, but my final choices for top jazz releases in 2013 were shaped by newer voices and rising stars, all of them uniquely notable for their artistry and leadership. Honored to have my choices submitted to the annual critics poll, curated by Francis Davis, and posted on the NPR website submitting my list to the Jazz Journalists Association site. All in all, a tremendous year for music and listeners.

1. Terri Lyne Carrington, Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue (Concord Jazz)
This is Carrington’s most satisfying record, its unifying themes shaped by the drummer’s self-assurance as much as her astounding rhythm team that’s profoundly in sync with the material. Carrington takes a risk and brilliantly re-imagines and contemporizes the classic Ellington/Mingus/Roach recording by adding killer arrangements and infectious grooves to protest current social ills.

2.  Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope, Mirage (Blueland Records)
Landrus’ voice on the baritone saxophone recalls the poetic sound of Gerry Mulligan. On this highly addictive all-original program he assembles a first-rate band and adds a string section conducted by Ryan Truesdell. While there are honorable swathes of R&B, soul and contemporary jazz folded into the mix, Landrus has an uncanny ability to weave serene and gorgeous straight-ahead melodies together that make an ultimate connection directly to the heart of the listener.

3.  John Escreet, Sabotage and Celebration (Whirlwind Records)
Pianist John Escreet is on the ascent and has an affecting playing style developed from all kinds of inspiration (Glenn Gould, Andrew Hill, Ligeti.) Approaching 30, he describes his creative process as being driven by making new music, so you listen to his records with an ear tilted for the unexpected that Escreet confidently delivers in a sweeping listening experience that’s boldly communicative. His four previous albums were excellent; Sabotage is driven by genuine purpose and it’s his best yet.

4.  Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild (Mack Avenue)
Accompanied by label mate (and arranger) pianist Aaron Diehl, jazz singer Salvant’s powerful debut presents beautifully crafted tunes that will make you think of singers like Ella and Sarah Vaughan, not stylistically, but in terms of originality and poise. Her version of “I Didn’t Know What Times It Was” is infused with a vitality that bursts out of your speakers. Not in a long while have you heard as captivating a voice or performance that brings groove and grace together so effectively.

5.  Christian McBride Trio, Out Here (Mack Avenue)
McBride makes his most seriously entertaining and musically affecting trio record. They tip their hat to the great Oscar Peterson and leap off from there with fresh renditions of “My Favorite Things” and a stunningly crafted original “I Guess I’ll Have To Forget” that showcases the expressive and mature style of pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. whose contributions throughout are especially rewarding.

6.  Jamie Baum, In This Life (Sunnyside)
As satisfying as it is heartfelt, flutist Baum and her ace band vividly evoke many moods with tunes inspired by her trip and experiences in India and Asia. By turns breathtaking -- she’s a masterful composer of dramatic harmonies for brass -- Baum sets herself free from the constraints of straight-ahead jazz, incorporating a range of subtle world-music styles that ultimately gives In This Life its altogether different and welcome contours.

7.  Etienne Charles, Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music)
Creole Soul flaunts a polished groove, heavy on the beats and the bass that dares you to try to sit still. Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles is the man behind the positive sound, a uniquely fired up combination of calypso and modern jazz that reflects his musical upbringing. Pianist Kris Bowers, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Obed Calvaire help fuel the fire.

8.  Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit (Blue Note)
Singer and songwriter Gregory Porter’s baritone is one the most captivating instruments in jazz. Liquid Spirit keeps Porter’s strong production team and musicians in place from his previous albums and adds 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.

9.  Stan Killian, Evoke (Sunnyside)
You can trace saxophonist Stan Killian’s sound back to the glory days of 1960’s Blue Note and the exuberant records by Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, but his tenor is firmly planted in the now. It’s easy to lean on hyperbole to describe Killian whose keen ear and strength as a leader is evident throughout -- He brings refreshing originality and deft swing to this winning date.

10.  Kendrick Scott Oracle, Conviction (Concord Jazz)
An exhilarating exploration of contemporary jazz, Scott lets straight-ahead beats collide with the modern architecture of contemporary sounds, bringing both a sharp focus and disciplined craftsmanship to this artful recording - along with some tight grooves that sonically endure. With Joe Sanders, Mike Moreno, Taylor Eigsti, John Ellis and Alan Hampton on vocals.

11.  Dave Holland, Prism (Dare2 Records)
Bassist Dave Holland has been in the jazz business for 40 years, forever looking forward as an artist and musician. Since releasing five acclaimed albums on his own label since 2005, Holland shifts gears and personnel for Prism, a groove-centric, hyper-fresh collection of tunes featuring guitarist Kevin Eubanks, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland. Hard-hitting rhythms collide with edgy harmonies and plugged in electronics to prove that Holland remains one of the most vital and important voices in jazz.

12.  Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Somewhere (ECM)
Recorded live in July 2009 in Switzerland, Somewhere captures the trio (together 30 years) at the height of their talents. The live gig weaves rapturous improvisation with straight-ahead swing. Indeed, the title track, coupled with Leonard Bernstein’s “Tonight,” gives the concert its center with a tender reading that bypasses sentiment and manages to open a deeper emotional vein. 

Honorable mentions:
  • Alexis Cuadrado, A Lorca Soundscape (BJU Records)
  • John Abercrombie, 39 Steps (ECM)
  • Chucho Valdes & The Afro-Cuban Messengers, Border-Free (Jazz Village)
  • Tomasz Stanko, Wislawa (ECM)
  • Antonio Sanchez, New Life (CAMJazz)
  • Aaron Diehl, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative (Mack Avenue)
  • Noah Preminger, Haymaker (Palmetto)
  • Giacomo Gates, Miles Tones (Savant
  • Tierney Sutton, After Blue (BFM)
  • Bob James and David Sanborn, Quartette Humaine (Okeh Records)
  • Rene Marie, I Wanna Be Evil (Motema)
  • Ahmad Jamal, Saturday Morning (Jazz Village)
  • Patricia Barber, Smash (Concord Jazz)

Best Reissues: 
·       Tommy Flanagan, Giant Steps (Enja Jazz Classics)
·       Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recording (Columbia/Legacy)
·       Sarah Vaughan, Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection (Pablo)


Thursday, December 5, 2013


Appearing with her septet at the Jazz Standard in New York on November 19 in support of In This Life, an astonishing and beautiful album, I watched a busy and conscientious Jamie Baum dart about the club making last minute changes to her set list and double-checking the soloing order of her musicians. A determined and focused flute player, Baum’s recording was inspired by her travels to India and South Asia, and most directly the devotional music of singer Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But, as she explains “my goal was not to compose or play in these styles, but to have my experiences inspire new ways of writing and improvising.”

I first saw Baum perform with her group over two years ago in a small now-defunct club and even then her creativity seemed larger than her small stature. On the Standard’s bandstand, she led a group that she’s remarkably kept assembled for 14 years, making resoundingly original music that’s warmly accessible and unerringly performed. Currently comprised of some of New York’s finest jazz musicians (many with their own current solo projects), a testament to her leadership skill, Baum spoke in humble tones about the inspiration that resulted from her cultural experiences, both secular and religious that provided an existential epiphany that’s memorably expressed through In This Life.

Baum’s superior charts give the project a small big band sound -- she layers waves of quietly majestic sound enriched by first-class trumpeters Amir ElSaffir and Taylor Haskins, and horn players Chris Komer and Douglas Yates. Propelled by bustling rhythm and brass, "Nusrat" is a brief yet bracing feature for the entire septet. Bassist Zack Lober and conga player Samuel Torres lay a deep groove on “Ants and Other Faithful Beings,” a rhythmic gem with a riveting theme and gorgeous solo by pianist John Escreet. Baum’s solo style favors warm, chamber jazz-like phrasing, reminiscent of Hubert Laws, one of Baum’s many teachers and influences.

As satisfying as it is heartfelt, Baum’s experiences vividly evokes many moods, especially the title cut that’s framed with the soft, medium tempo of a ballad and wistful licks by downtown guitarist Brad Shepik, but contains a jumpy mid-section that sports jagged piano lines and dramatic harmonies for brass.  On the poetic and loving “While We Are Here” and the anthem-like “The Game” (dig that Dan Weiss tabla accompaniment), Baum sets herself free from the constraints of straight-ahead jazz, incorporating a range of subtle musical styles that ultimately gives In This Life its welcome contours. (11 tracks; 65 minutes)

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RENE MARIE, I WANNA BE EVIL (with Love To Eartha Kitt)

Moods collide in the most harmonious way on Rene Marie’s saucy homage to Eartha Kitt, I Wanna be Evil, an album of signature Kitt tunes and lesser-known songs that underscore Ms. Marie’s originality and strong point of view. While she doesn’t sound like or imitate Kitt, Marie unquestionably lets her spirit move her with evocative renditions of “I’d Rather be Burned As A Witch” and the title cut, both which succeed due to the scorching dynamic between Marie and her ace band, plus the high-octane horn arrangements by hot, young trumpeter Etienne Charles who rounds out the frontline trio along with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and saxophonist Adrian Cunningham.

Marie’s own arrangement of the old Rosemary Clooney hit, “Come On-A My House” utilizes exotic percussion by Quentin Baxter to conjure up all kinds of illicit pursuits and her investment in the lyric gives this standard a modern sensual twist. The band floats “C’est Si Bon” on a cottony cloud of rhythm, plush and inviting, as Marie coos the song with a sophisticated wink and nod. Charles is highlighted again on “Santa Baby,” arranged by pianist Kevin Bales and sung at a Shirley Horn tempo – perhaps the best after-hours rendition of this classic tune you’ll hear.

The album concludes with “Weekend,” an original song by Rene Marie that carries the emotional gravity of Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit.” Only an artist as talented as Ms. Marie could write a song about sexual abuse that resonates so deeply, maybe because its message connects more easily with a soul-jazz groove. It’s a sobering closer to be sure, but points to the better musical choices that Marie makes and her production standards that make I Wanna Be Evil a truly great jazz vocal record. (10 tracks; 60 minutes)

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What is it about vinyl records that cause listeners to swoon? As a recent convert myself (I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve recently invested in a Clearaudio turntable rig), I can say that despite the slight nuisance of getting up every 15 minutes to turn over the platter, the sound of vinyl captures the essence of a performance in a way that digital media cannot. The warmth of analog sound, together with the depth and dynamic range of vinyl is sonically apparent to most listeners and even non-audiophiles. A welcome resurgence of interest of vinyl has not gone unnoticed by recording labels, since most of them offer a vinyl edition and CD to accompany their current digital releases.

To satisfy this renaissance of vinyl, the classy, independent label Mack Avenue Records, founded by Detroit businesswoman Gretchen Valade and Tom Robinson, have recently issued some of their best recordings on audiophile-quality 180-gram double-LP records:

·       Cecile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild
·       New Gary Burton Quartet, Common Ground
·       Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Kind Of Brown
·       The Christian McBride Big Band 
·       Stanley Jordan, Friends
·       Kenny Garrett, Seeds From The Underground
·       Kevin Eubanks, Zen Food
·       Yellowjackets, Timeline

So, back to the swooning thing -- out of all of these Mack Avenue LP releases, two albums stand out in particular. Apart from getting extra-deluxe gatefold packaging on Christian McBride’s Kind Of Brown two-record set, it’s the only one in this group that’s pressed on 210-gram vinyl, which results in a flatter LP and a lower noise floor when played on your own turntable. And it includes a link for a digital download of the full album. Like each of the Mack Avenue LPs, this sings with clarity and astonishing vividness – there’s a tangible feeling to McBride’s band as if you are sitting directly in front of them. Drummer Carl Allen, pianist Eric Reed, sax player Steve Wilson and vibraphonist Warren Wolf blend seamlessly across the soundstage.

The album from singer Cecile McLorin Salvant is a solid candidate for 2013 jazz vocal record of the year. Winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International jazz Competition, Salvant is accompanied by label mate and swinging pianist/arranger Aaron Diehl, bassist Rodney Whitaker, guitarist James Chirillo and drummer Herlin Riley, on beautifully crafted tunes that will make you think of singers like Ella and Sarah Vaughan, not stylistically, but rather in terms of originality and poise. Salvant’s version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is seized with a vitality that bursts out of your speakers. Not in a long while has one heard as captivating a performance, one that brings together groove and grace so beautifully. A once and future star, let’s hope that Ms. Salvant continues to light up the night in song for a long time to come.

Vinyl has come full-circle, no longer on life-support or sustained by handful of rebel labels, collectors and fringe audiophiles. Mack Avenue Records is supporting the effort by partnering with the well-respected vinyl producer, RTI Technologies (the same company that produced the invaluable Miles Davis monaural LPs.) Each of their eight initial offerings provides an exceptional reason to reinvest in vinyl. Perhaps it’s time to repurpose the phrase coined at the launch of CD technology back in the ‘80s, which promised “perfect sound forever” – turns out it never went away.

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You can’t define Miles Davis with one word. He was 29 in 1955, the year he signed with Columbia Records, and already known as a provocateur, a trendsetter and genius. Today his brand is universally recognized, mostly as a prolific trumpeter and the quintessential jazz musician with a recording legacy that’s ripe for rediscovery with every generation. That legacy, which took root and flowered in the 1950’s, was cemented during his long-term tenure at Columbia Records where Davis’ creativity perhaps did more to advance jazz in the last half of the 20th century than any other single musician.

Evidence of the trumpeter’s dynamic artistry can be found from the outset on nine albums that Davis recorded at Columbia, spanning the years 1957 to 1964. Repackaged and assembled as a nine CD box set or individually on 180-gram limited edition vinyl, Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings provide compulsively listenable music in a sonic format that’s mostly been forgotten. The albums themselves are classics: ‘Round About Midnight, Miles Ahead, Milestones, Jazz Track, Porgy and Bess, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Someday My Prince Will Come and Miles & Monk at Newport. The Jazz Track album adds three standout studio cuts to the collected music cues that Davis improvised for Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller, Elevator To The Gallows, and Milestones and Porgy and Bess reunite Davis with his Birth Of The Cool collaborator, Gil Evans.

The recording sessions that yielded these albums were carefully produced in both monaural and stereo sound, but we learn from the set’s notes that mono recordings were the preferred way popular music was recorded and marketed in the 50’s and early 60’s to consumers. It wasn’t until 1959 that stereo LPs were sold by Columbia as a way to reach upscale buyers who had the requisite hi-fi systems.

There’s no doubt of the viability in the marketplace that physical boxed CDs has limitations given the shifting demographics of their potential buyers. As handsome as the set is (Legacy slips nine CDs into mini-LP replica jackets together in the box with a 40-page annotated booklet) the vinyl editions of these mono recordings will be choice items for the flourishing turntable-owner set. Mastered from the original analog tapes by Mark Wilder, it’s worth noting that the audible difference between the mono CDs and vinyl is obvious.

Jazz fans have grown up hearing the stereo versions of these recordings, but their monaural counterparts, especially the vinyl, have a palpable depth-of-field with fine-grain instrumentation and a sonic richness that’s as satisfying as a timeless black and white movie. The experience of listening to the music is like being in the recording booth as Miles, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane and Red Garland play incomparable versions of standards and now classic jazz originals. It’s easier to describe this historic set in one word: cool, like Miles.

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Saxophonist Houston Person has one of the most dependable track records in jazz. A stout traditionalist who has produced and arranged a long list of solo recordings, many for his current label, High Note, Person is a tenor player in the mode of Gene Ammons and Stanley Turrentine, a musician whose style and irresistible honeyed tone epitomizes jazz for many listeners. Person’s album is inspired by Frank Sinatra’s original classic Nice ‘n’ Easy from 1960, right down to the pop-colored graphics, yet it’s set apart by a selection of songs that suits Person’s breezy, soulful inclinations. Sophisticated swing with a beat, a melody and expressive accompaniment is what Person is all about. Louis Armstrong’s “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” along with songbook standards “All My Tomorrows” and “Let’s Fall In Love” are perfectly suited to Person’s graceful and lyrical style. Supporting the saxophonist is Houston’s familiar sidemen – the melodic pianist John diMartino, classic jazz bassist Ray Drummond and beats master Lewis Nash. A refreshing addition to the date, vibraphonist Chuck Redd provides the set list with sparkling harmonic textures. (10 tracks; 56 minutes)

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Meeting drummer Vince Ector for the first time, after attending singer Giacomo Gates’ unabashedly hip and swinging 2013 appearance at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola in NYC in support of his Miles Davis tribute CD, was like reconnecting with an old friend. Humble and good-natured, Ector is a musician clearly in love with his art and an artist eager to share stories and experiences. The drummer invited me to listen to his third solo recording, Organatomy, (American Showplace Records) which turns out to feature a burning organ/guitar/tenor/drum combo. In conversation with Ector about his music, I asked him why he decided to make a record with such a distinctive lead instrument.

“I decided to do an organ date because of my history with [organist] Charles Earland. Charlie gave me my first record date on Ready & Able (Muse, 1995),” Ector tells me. “We had a long history because we both grew up in South Philly. His niece worked for my childhood doctor and knew I was a kid who played drums from a young age. Every year she would show me her Uncle Charlie's new LP. Little did I know he would give me my first major break. I toured Europe for the first time with him as well.”

Organatomy sets itself apart by including a Brazilian-flavored original, a spry Jobim cover and adds trumpeter Claudio Roditi and percussionist Café on several tracks. As a leader, Ector artfully balances his arranging skills with soulfully played compositions like Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” a version that swings with a hip bass and drum vamp. It’s part of a diverse playlist of spirited originals and fresh takes on Gillespie and Joe Henderson tunes. Organist Kyle Koehler has grooves for days, with a persuasive B-3 message and melodic flourishes that inject “Aries,” a Don Patterson and Sonny Stitt original collaboration, with beauty and brawn.

From an historical perspective, Ector reveals, “This CD is more of a homage to all of the great [jazz] organists I was fortunate enough to see as a kid including Don Patterson himself. Philly has a long B-3 history and I felt it was time to record an organ CD because I have always had a fondness and respect for the tradition. This time I decided to write a few pieces that I thought represented the many uncommon facets of the instrument such as a samba (“Karen's Dance”) that’s typically not heard on organ.” 

Organatomy ushers Vince Ector into the ranks of Philly’s Kings of Swing - a group that includes Larry McKenna and pianist Jimmy Amadie. His modern-leaning take on the classic jazz organ group has flow and plenty of percussive excitement, along with what Ector says is “swing, groove, excitement. Rhythmically, it takes chances – what makes a great organ CD.”  (9 tracks; 48 minutes)

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