Jazz-2K: CD Picks of the Week

Five more reasons why America’s classical music is alive, well, and ready to do some damage:

(Dark Key Music, 2011)
Branford Marsalis’ longtime drummer builds a great new level onto his own career as a leader, literally swinging from 2009’s rage-fueled haymaker “Watts” to a joyous, multi-faceted set of originals inspired by family, friends, and associates. Tain’s solo on the staggering “Of August Moon” captures the intensity of one of the greatest playwrights ever, “Little Michael” is the only tribute to the King of Pop that doesn’t make me reach for the Advil, and the back-to-back “Edwardian Overture” and “Jonesin’ (for Elvin)” nail two of the giants that cleared the way for Watts. Steve Wilson’s reedwork is absolutely knockout, and pianist/career sideman David Kikoski may have found the venue where his epic talents can truly be appreciated. Fellow Branford alum James Genus contributes sassy bass all the way through, and leaves room for Tain to be Tain, which is always sweet. “Family” will always make you smile, and how many times can you say that sentence and really mean it?

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(Emarcy, 2011)
This brilliant young guitarist (who plays electric but sounds acoustic) should now be called “a former phenom”, because all that promise we saw back in the day is being gloriously realized. Lage’s second disc literally creates an imaginary town before our ears, inviting us to explore a place we never heard of but intrinsically know. While the initially meditative “Margaret” was inspired by singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, it could be an introduction to someone returning to her home town after a long absence. The bustling “Listening Walk” hustles us through the Gladwell train station; “Iowa Taken” shows us the town’s colorful artsy side; and the haunting “Coccoon” details the beauty and sadness of the church. The music is a sumptuous mix of jazz, folk, bluegrass, Latin, classical and about a dozen other influences, and while the group compositions are like nothing being offered anywhere by anyone, Lage’s moments alone are on a completely different level.

“Captain Black Big Band”
(Posi-Tone, 2011)
It takes a whole lot of something special to get me interested in a big-band recording, but “Captain Black” definitely makes the grade, offering towering horn charts and a group dynamic that’s on the same level as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Featuring heavyweights like Jack Walrath, Wayne Escoffery and Tia Fuller, Evans’ juggernaut also does the whole thing live, which adds a real tightrope-without-a-net factor that would send many groups plummeting down into the open mouths of the tigers below. Rob Landham’s screaming alto on Ralph Peterson’s “Art of War” is an unequivocal attention-getter, Walter White and Ralph Bowen take turns swinging for the fences on the swaggering “Big Jimmy” and Jaleel Shaw’s primal moment in the clear on “Jena 6” captures the drama and rage that fueled a controversial moment in recent civil-rights history. Captain Morgan can go jump in the ocean; “Captain Black” is the dude I want to hang with!

“Live at Smalls”
(smallsLIVE, 2011)
This California native appeared at A Place for Jazz last fall, and nobody who saw that gig will be surprised at the virtuosity displayed on “Live at Smalls.” A marvelously lyrical pianist who tells stories rather than plays songs, Barth shows how people and places shift his muse into overdrive: “Afternoon in Lleida” takes a picturesque cruise through the Catalonian town of the same name – and quotes Charlie Rich while he does it; “Wilsonian Alto” (a tribute to the aforementioned reedman Steve Wilson) dances around the room, which is quite a trick at the correctly-named Smalls, and Barth gives “Sunday” and Yama” the full, loving treatment time constraints kept him from giving us at APFJ. Drummer Rudy Royston (who backed Barth and J.D. Allen at APFJ) and bassist Vicente Archer say their own pieces on the disc, but for the most part they focus on giving Barth room to spin his tales and knock us out… just like he did at the Whisperdome.

“Unsung Heroes”
(Hollistic MusicWorks, 2010)
There are jazz trumpeters that everybody knows – Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis – but how many non-jazzers are familiar with Freddie Hubbard, Idrees Sulieman, or Charles Tolliver? Fellow horn man Lynch is out to solve that with “Unsung Heroes,” a three-volume ode to the players that made great music without making great headlines. Tommy Turrentine’s “I Could Never Forget You” is an old school ballad that cries out for a dance floor and a (non-disco) mirror ball, “Wetu” hits you with the energy and excitement Louis Smith brought to the Horace Silver Quintet, and “Terra Firma Irma” is a taste of the possibilities Joe Gordon offered before dying young in a 1963 house fire. Lynch plays with fire and love on every piece, eminently assisted by razor-sharp pianist Rob Schneiderman, bassist/Skidmore Jazz Institute alum David Wong, and “special invited guest” Vincent Herring. “Unsung” is a hell of an education, and if you want to take the full course, “Volume Two” and “Volume Three” are available for digital download.

Reviews by J Hunter

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