CD reviews by J Hunter
It’s “Back To School” time, and speaking from experience, you need good tunes to get through the first few weeks… and the following nine months. Here are a few suggestions to relieve the tedium – whether you’re a student, a parent or a teacher:
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE TRIO
On the surface, Out Here is a logical extension of the fervor bassist Christian McBride put into his mad trad group Inside Straight, a killer quintet that puts a straight edge onto straight-ahead jazz; below the surface, McBride is morphing slowly into former mentor/leader Ray Brown by building solid platforms for the next generation of jazzers to show their stuff. Out Here strips Inside Straight’s attack down to the bare essentials, giving us a piano-trio date that has something most piano-trio dates don’t have – teeth! The savory blues “Ham Hocks & Cabbage” might burn your mouth here and there, but you’ll revel in the taste of it. Pianist Christian Sands gives Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” the heart and the touch of its late, great composer, while Johnny Taylor’s iconic shouter “Who’s Making Love” gets stamped into the New Great American Songbook with a soul-jazz arrangement that’s unerringly driven by drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. Sands and Owens both feature on Inside Straight’s latest disc People Music, so they’re dialed right in to McBride’s vibrant take on all things jazz. Sands’ roaring keyboard work on the superfast gospel “Hallelujah Time” is one of those calling-card solos people will remember, and his vast exploration of “My Favorite Things” almost makes you forget that some guy named Coltrane recorded it, too. But that’s Christian McBride, who’s been playing fearless music for over three decades – and, for once, “more of the same” is a really, really GOOD thing!
Linda Oh’s star continues to rise and rise: Her quake-inducing bass work resonates throughout the Dave Douglas Quintet’s Time Travel and Pascal Le Boeuf’s Pascal’s Triangle, and she’s helped backstop Sound Prints, Douglas & Joe Lovano’s project inspired by the music of iconoclastic saxman Wayne Shorter. If Oh’s latest release Sun Pictures is any indication, hanging out with Douglas (the evil genius behind Greenleaf Music) has definitely broadened Oh’s creative horizons. Oh has tightened up her band sound considerably, leaving the warmer tones of Fabian Almazan’s piano behind in favor of Kneebody tenorman Ben Wendel, guitarist James Muller and veteran drummer/leader Ted Poor. She’s also more daring in her own choices: “Shutterspeed Dreams” is essentially the trailer for this “movie,” mashing up themes from all the pieces to come into a digital remix that actually stands as its own piece. Oh’s subject matter is increasingly eclectic, too: The assertive “Yoda” and the shambling “Terminal 3” come from people and experiences in her life, but the ever-expanding “Blue Over Gold” is an outgrowth of her love for the abstract artist Mark Rothko, and “Polyphonic HMI” is the name of a music analysis company that predicts hit songs using data algorithms. (Trust me – this tune will never make it to Top 40 radio!) Although Dayna Stephens’ sax work was more than serviceable on Oh’s first Greenleaf date Initial Here, Wendel serves up a palpable sense of adventure every time he brings his bell to the mic. Muller gives Oh’s compositions a jagged edge that was the only thing missing on Initial, while Poor’s asymmetrical counters keep things spare while adding punctuation marks to every statement Wendel and Muller make. Let’s hope Oh continues to follow Douglas’ lead and continue to evolve, avoiding pigeonholes at every turn.
Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter
David Weiss may not be the first name that comes to your mind when it comes to jazz, but it should be in your Top 10: Weiss is the mastermind behind (and 2nd trumpet for) the Cookers, and his own band Point of Departure just hit a home run with their Posi-tone debut Venture Inward. But even though his PDA should be full, Weiss also had time in the last few years to shape the Endangered Species Band, an all-star unit dedicated to giving the aforementioned Shorter some love that’s as big as the band itself, and Endangered Species is the group’s first recorded outing. Taken from a 2012 date at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Weiss shows his faith in the band by choosing pieces that might not be recognized as prime Shorter material. The mournful loop “Fall” is one of the best tracks off Miles Davis’ classic Nefertiti, but the bustling “Mr. Jin” and the balladic suite “Eva” come from Shorter’s time in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and the massive set-closer “Prometheus Unbound” has appeared in several forms but has never been recorded by its composer; Weiss’ own sprawling composition “The Turning Gate” appears here, but the piece rings with the musical question, “What Would Wayne Do?” Well, for one thing, Shorter wouldn’t use this big a vehicle: As SFJAZZ Collective found to their cost when they spotlit Shorter, his music doesn’t lend itself well to any matrix bigger than a quintet. That said, the individual performances on Species make up for any “failure” by the whole. When she’s not offering galvanizing solos of her own, pianist Geri Allen anchors the date with bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer E.J. Strickland. Jeremy Pelt’s trumpet rings out like a bell throughout the date, while reed wizards Ravi Coltrane and Marcus Strickland make “Fall” and “Prometheus” their respective star turns. Regardless of my feelings about Shorter’s music in a big-band format, the love in the performances (and in Weiss’ stunningly beautiful arrangements) can’t be denied.
La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing: A Tribute to Billy Strayhorn
Contrarywise, if there was any composer whose music was literally tailor-made for a big-band treatment, it’s Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. However, the biggest thing about La Rumba is a Lovesome Thing is not the band, which never gets larger than a nonet; it’s multi-instrumentalist Paul Carlon’s vision of taking Ellington and Strayhorn on a longform trek through the sounds of las Américas. As such, we get a re-imagining of the Ellington Band that shows great respect for the history while taking the music in a wholly new and exciting direction. When “Johnny Come Lately” blasts off (after an opening chant by Benjamin Lapidus and star percussionist Pedrito Martinez), it’s more Carnaval in Brazil then Saturday night at the Cotton Club. “Take the A Train” gives big love to the original recording at the outset, but when Christelle Durandy picks up the vocal, the piece is samba-ing out of the station to Martinez’ electrifying conga, after which the piece gets bigger, broader and decidedly tribal. Martinez isn’t the only percussionist in Carlon’s bag, conguero Wilson “Chembo” Corniel brings a subtle jump to “After All” and “U.M.M.G.” At the end of the day, though, La Rumba comes back to the foundations of Ellington’s music: The piano and the horns. For the latter, Carlon teams his own prodigious skills with a fiendish line that is as big and bold on “Tonk” as it is sweet and lowdown on “Passion Flower,” which is made even more sultry by Durandy’s come-hither vocal. The closer “Chelsea Bridge” is a tad schizophrenic, jumping between Strayhorn’s personal solitude and the double happiness of what has come before. As respectful as Carlon’s treatment of Strayhorn’s songbook is, Carlon also proves you can be respectful and have fun at the same time. Salud!
ROBERT WALTER’S 20TH CONGRESS
Get Thy Bearings
(Royal Potato Family)
John Medeski notwithstanding, it seems like the only time a Hammond B3 organ shows up in jazz is when someone wants to have a party. Well, as the saying goes, “Ain’t no party like a NEW ORLEANS party!” In that light, we have the latest effort from keyboardist Robert Walter – a founding member of the Greyboy All-Stars and a frequent collaborator with NOLA monsters like Stanton Moore and Bobby Previte. Mind you, Walter’s no one-trick pony, bringing both acoustic & electric pianos to Get Thy Bearings, as well as some nicely sizzling synthesizer. But it’s the B3 that grabs you by the short & curlies as “Hunk” leaps out of the speakers and starts dancing around the room – and if the kickass groove doesn’t get you, Cochema Gastelum’s steaming alto sax surely will. Apart from the creepy/funky “Inversion Layer” and Walter’s spacy take on the Donovan-composed title track, this disc stops for no-one or nothing, and you can either hang on for dear life or let go and take your chances. Walter triple-tracks Gastelum to create a Tower of Power-like horn line for the soul-gospel rave-up “Little Business,” and he sends the date completely into orbit to give Jimi Hendrix’ “Up From the Skies” the supersonic treatment it truly deserves. Karl Denson’s formation-flying flute gives “Don’t Chin the Dog” a CTI-like vibe, and his sax work gives “Hunk” some extra muscle mass. If you’re looking for something soft and subtle, this disc is definitely not for you. But if you want something that will make your guests scream “Play it again, play it again,” get thee hence and get Get Thy Bearings!
NOTE: J Hunter’s Jazz2K columns leap off your computer screen and onto the airwaves with his new “Jazz2K” radio show, heard weekly on Skidmore College’s WSPN-FM at 6pm on Tuesdays.