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CurtJazz’s Best Jazz Albums of 2011 – The Final List

Posted in CD Reviews, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by Curtis Davenport

About six months ago, I posted a halftime list of my favorite 2011 jazz recordings heard between January and July.  I promised to be back around now to fill out the list with what I experienced over the last six months.  My original intent was to pare that list down to a final dozen or so, spanning the entire year…

Well, I changed my mind y’all. Instead, we’re going to add another ten to that first list, making it a Top 20.  And, like last year, there was an excellent 2010 disc that I completely missed until 2011. It will be included as well.

As a reminder, here are albums from the July post. You can see/read the entire July post HERE.

So here they are, in alpha order by album title – my favorite jazz discs from the second half of this year:

Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook – Miguel Zenón (Marsalis Music) – He’s not prone to ostentatious self promotion, but this Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow has quietly become one of the most important saxophonists in jazz today.  Each of his albums has topped the previous one; taking his artistry to a new place and keeping us, the audience, on the edge of our seats. Alma Adentro, is the exploration of the music of five composers, who are unknown in the U.S. but very important in Puerto Rican musical lore. It’s not “Latin Jazz” in the sense that we’ve come to know it, but is outstanding music that broadened my horizons.

BitchesNicholas Payton (In + Out Records) – Yes, the title did make me wince a little, but the music made me smile, a lot.  This has been an interesting year for Mr. Payton, as his blunt, insightful and often profane musings have made him one of the more controversial and compelling figures in the world of jazz social media.  Not surprisingly, this album has also caused its share of controversy, raising eyebrows in the same way that In a Silent Way, another album with a dream-like vibe, did in 1969.  Payton composed every song, played every instrument and sings on many of the tracks (quite well, I might add), more than holding his own with some top-drawer guests, like Esperanza Spalding and Cassandra Wilson.  If you’re looking for “jazz” of the type that Payton played on his early Verve albums, you won’t find it here. Bitches has more in common with mid-70’s ballad driven R & B and with neo-soul. But as someone who grew up with the former and has developed a keen appreciation for the latter, I really dug this album.

Black Lace Freudian Slip – René Marie (Motema Music)

René Marie was very quiet for a while after her 2008 controversies, but she is back with a vengeance; releasing not one but two outstanding albums in 2011. The first; Voice of My Beautiful Country, (which was on our first “Best of” list) was a tribute to patriotic and traditional standards. Black Lace Freudian Slip is mostly comprised of Marie originals, including the title track, which is every bit as sly and sexy as the title suggests. The two discs may be lyrical opposites but the music on both is outstanding. Don’t try to choose between them, get them both.

For All Those Living – Sheryl Bailey (Pure Music Records)

Guitarist Sheryl Bailey gets better with every recording. She follows up last year’s impressive big band outing,  A New Promise, with a terrific quartet disc that displays her impressive chops and full-bodied swing to great advantage.  The Emily Remler comparisons are easy to make, but I think that that’s too limiting.  Sheryl Bailey has the potential to outshine her role model, whose untimely death halted her artistic growth. Bump the gender limitations; Ms. Bailey is one of the best jazz guitarists working today, period. This disc also has its heart in the right place as 20% of the proceeds from all sales will be donated to Ronald McDonald House.

The Mosaic Project – Terri Lyne Carrington (Concord Records)

As I stated in my earlier review of this album, The Mosaic Project is Terri Lyne Carrington’s most completely realized project, by a mile. It also is one of the best jazz works of the year by any artist. Click HERE to see my full post about it.

Pinnacle: Live and Unreleased from Keystone Korner – Freddie Hubbard (Resonance Records)

What a find this was by Resonance Records! Hubbard, at the top of his game in 1980 on performances compiled from summer and fall appearances at the legendary San Francisco club.  The version of “The Intrepid Fox” that opens the album, is jaw dropping. What follows is just as good, including the only known recording of Hub playing “Giant Steps”. The title says it all.

Road Shows Volume 2 – Sonny Rollins (Doxy/EmArcy)

I was one of the few who liked, but didn’t love Road Shows Volume 1; mostly because of the unevenness of the 30 years worth of performances. Volume 2’s tracks by contrast, were all recorded during 2010, most of them during Newk’s already legendary 80th birthday concert, the remaining two a month later in Japan.  Sonny is in very fine form and the guest stars, including Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove, Jim Hall, Christian McBride and Ornette Coleman, in his first ever public performance with Rollins, all rise to the occasion. Sonny Rollins proves once again, that age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

Something Beautiful – Eric Reed (WJ3 Records)

Something Beautiful is Eric Reed doing what he does best; playing in a trio setting. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over twenty years since Reed first debuted with Wynton, but in those years he has grown from teenaged prodigy to one of the best pianists of his generation, with an impeccable melodic sense that accompanies his gospel influenced chord structure.  Something Beautiful consists mostly of songs by others, from Berlin to Brubeck to Billy Joel; all of them sounding as unsullied as if they were being played for the first time.

 

Tirtha – Vijay Iyer (ACT)

Tirtha is the self titled debut of pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest trio, which also includes tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna.  As expected, the album has a strong South Asian influence, but I feel that slapping a term such as “Indian Jazz” on this music is almost insulting in its limitations.  Their sound is alive and its intricacies grow with every hearing.   Iyer has never been afraid to challenge conventions and he usually creates something fresh in the process. He and his Tirtha band mates have done so here.  In a genre often chided for being stale, Tirtha is a welcome breath of fresh air.

 

Triumph of the Heavy Volumes 1 & 2 – Marcus Strickland (Strick Music/CDBY)

Strickland is another of those young saxophonists who give me hope for the future whenever I hear him blow.  On this two disc set (gutsy for a relatively unknown artist), he brings the goods on tenor, alto, soprano and clarinet.  Disc 2 is a live trio set with Marcus’ twin brother E.J. on drums and up and coming bassist Ben Williams. They push the boundaries of convention to the limits, with a hard-driving sound that is spare, but never thin.  On Disc 1, recorded eight months later, they add David Bryant, a young Tyner influenced pianist with mad promise, to the mix.  Bryant’s angular harmonies are the main reason I have a slight preference for the studio set but it doesn’t really matter, because neither disc has left heavy rotation in my iPod since I bought them.

And a 2010 disc that I missed…

Introducing Triveni – Avishai Cohen (Anzic)

I’m continuing the tradition that I started last year of recognizing an outstanding disc released in the previous year that managed to escape my ears until the current one.  Triveni was released in September 2010. It’s a trio session led by the trumpet playing brother of Anat Cohen, who has garnered renown for her work on sax and clarinet.  Avishai Cohen is one of two Israeli jazzmen working today who share the same name (the other plays bass) and as of now, he’s the lesser known of the two.  This strong outing should do something to change that. Trumpet/bass/drums trio sessions are rare but Cohen is more than up to the task, collaborating with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits on originals and standards that mine the depths of hard bop, swing, funk with a nice dose of avant-garde as well.  Cohen is not going to bowl you over with flights into the upper register but the impressiveness of his facility and inventiveness in the mid range is worth a dozen high notes. Many thanks to Canadian journalist/pianist Peter Hum for pulling my coat about this one.

Notable Mentions

Here are a few more fine discs from 2011 that are worth a listen or ten. Don’t pass them up if you have a chance:

  • A Boy’s Journey Peter Hum Quintet (self-released) The knowledgeable and witty jazz journalist is also a very fine pianist. An impressive debut recording.
  • Parallel Lives Andrea Wolper (Jazzed Media) – This vocalist grows more impressive with each album.  Her coolly inviting mix of originals with rarely heard standards are a perfect tonic for a tough world. 
  • State of Art – Ben Williams (Concord Jazz) – The Monk Competition winner drops a formidable blend of the new and the traditional on his first disc.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting and I want to hear more.
  • Sweet Thunder (Duke & Shak) – Delfeayo Marsalis (Troubador Jass) – Delfeayo does The Duke proud on this hard-swinging octet version of Such Sweet Thunder. It’s the year’s best album from someone named Marsalis (Read the full review post HERE)
  • When the Heart Emerges Glistening  Ambrose Akinmusire (Blue Note) – A rare case of a much-hyped major label debut living up to expectations. Akinmusire is the real deal; and the greatest thing is that he’s nobody’s clone.

And that’s how things looked this year from my “plush” Charlotte studio/mancave.  Tracks from these albums and more will be heard on Curt’s Café WebJazz Radio, starting on December 27 and continuing on through the month of January.  Your thoughts, comments and criticisms are always welcome and your spam is always deleted.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts this year. I don’t take your support for granted. I hope you’ll stick around for what I expect will be an interesting 2012.

A Happy and Healthy Holiday Season to all of you. 

Until the next time, the jazz continues…

Favorite Jazz Albums of 2011 (So Far)

Posted in CD Reviews, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by Curtis Davenport

Since I was shamefully late with my best of list for 2010, I figured why wait ‘til the last minute this year…

But seriously, there has been some fine jazz released so far in 2011. We’ve had some great releases from reliable veterans as well as some surprises from relative newcomers.  Here are a few of the discs that have caught my ear during between January and June. They are listed in alphabetical order, by album title:

Bird Songs – Joe Lovano & Us Five (Blue Note) – Released in early January, this disc got the year off to a strong start. Yes, there are many Charlie Parker tribute albums, but Lovano and the band (James Weidman, Esperanza Spalding, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela), have managed to find something fresh, new and exciting in these tunes that we have heard more times that we can count. In addition, in the two years since their last disc, their sound has grown more cohesive.  If Joe Lovano isn’t the best tenor player of his generation, then he’s definitely in the top two.

Campo Belo – Anthony Wilson (Goat Hill)Recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last September, with three very gifted young Brazilian musicians; Campo Belo counts as one of the most pleasant surprises of the first half of the year.  It’s not a Brazilian record in the sense that we have come to know it, and therein lays a great deal of its charm.  It never sounds forced or self-conscious; it’s just a bunch of cats that dig each other’s style, sitting down to play. It’s a heady vibe that will grow on you with each listen.

 

Captain Black Big Band – Orrin Evans (Posi-Tone)Hold on to your hats on this one. Evans, the Philly bred pianist has dropped on us a band that’s as big, brash and badass as it wants to be.  It was born out of Evans’ regular gigging at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia.  The glorious result is 38 musicians,  from The Big Apple and The City of Brotherly Love, in various configurations; blowing their hearts out on seven tracks. Soloists include Wayne Escoffery, Tim Warfield, Jaleel Shaw and the great trombonist Frank Lacy. It may not be your father’s big band, but it should be yours.

Good and Bad Memories – Stacy Dillard (Criss Cross)Though people have pulled my coat about him in the past, I’d somehow managed to sleep on this Michigan native until this album, his fifth as a frontman.  It’s definitely my loss. His sound on tenor and soprano is restless, powerful and exciting as all hell.  With support from a band that includes Orrin Evans, and guitarist Craig Magnano anchoring a non-traditional front line, Stacy Dillard proves to be a force to be reckoned with, as a player and as a composer. When speaking of Mr. Dillard, Wynton Marsalis eloquently exclaims “This MF can PLAY!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

The Lost and Found Gretchen Parlato (ObliqSound)Ms. Parlato is another artist who gets better with each successive release.  This album is a dreamy mix of gorgeous originals like “Winter Wind”, with inventive takes on jazz classics, like “Juju” and “Blue in Green”, with totally unexpected and effective uses of more recent works, including Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. Not everyone digs her style, but I sure do. Gretchen Parlato is one of jazz singing’s best hopes for the future.

Ninety Miles – Stefon Harris; David Sanchez and Christian Scott (Concord Picante) – One of the most anticipated jazz releases of the first half of the year, lives up to the hype.  Harris, Sanchez, Scott and their Cuban sidemen have bridged the political nonsense to create some powerful and enduring music. They are a true collective, as all support each other as powerfully as they solo.  Grammys be damned, Ninety Miles is some award worthy Latin Jazz.

No Need for Words – Sean Jones (Mack Avenue) Trumpeter Sean Jones’ latest, is an album of love songs; not in the traditional romantic sense, but rather it’s about all of the different emotional aspects that visit us when we love, in any way. So, there are songs about a mother’s love, forgiveness for an absent father, spiritual love, physical passion, unhealthy obsession and yes, romance. His writing is very strong and his band is rock solid. On No Need for Words, Jones makes a statement that is personal, powerful and compelling.

This Side of Strayhorn – Terell Stafford (MaxJazz) The veteran trumpet man flat-out cooks from start to finish on this tribute to the works of one of jazz’s greatest composers.  He tackles the well-known (“Lush Life”) and the obscure (“Lana Turner”) parts of the Strayhorn catalog with creativity and gusto. His tone is as good as it has ever been as Stafford flutters, sings and growls his around Strayhorn’s music as if the songs were written just for him.  With stalwarts like Tim Warfield and Bruce Barth joining him, they manage to make great tunes even greater.

 

Victory J.D. Allen (Sunnyside) In general, I have not been a big fan of sax trios, outside of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson.  J.D. Allen is one of handful of relative newcomers who are causing me to reconsider.  Here’s what made me fall in love: first – Victory is stocked with short, powerful statements.  No one track exceeds five minutes in length, leaving less room for the self-indulgent rambling that often plagues trio projects. Second – J.D. Allen is a prodigiously gifted musician; adept at flirting outrageously with the avant-garde without going all the way.  Third – a delightful rendition of “Stairway to the Stars”, that appears out of nowhere. Kudos to Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, who are just as important to this album’s success.

 

Voice of My Beautiful Country René Marie (Motema) By now, most jazz fans are familiar with the incident that birthed the concept for this album. Invited to sing the National Anthem at a 2008 Denver political event, Ms. Marie instead chose to sing the words of “The Star Spangled Banner”, to the melody of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (aka “The Black National Anthem”). Though the rendition was stunning, the fallout was immediate and harsh, on all sides of the political and racial spectrum. It nearly derailed Ms. Marie’s promising career.  Now in her first full album release since the incident, René Marie proves that she’s back with a vengeance. Voice of My Beautiful Country is a flat-out artistic triumph; as it covers the spectrum of great American songwriting, from homespun Americana, like “John Henry” to rock classics (“White Rabbit”) to a surprisingly effective medley of “Imagination” and “Just My Imagination” to the unforgettable “Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite”, which includes another “Star Spangled Banner”/”Lift Ev’ry Voice…” mashup. René Marie has been called the natural successor to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and other socially conscious jazz singers. The comparison is fitting.

Honorable Mention must go to Brian Lynch’s Unsung Heroes, an album released on CD in 2011, which would be at the top of this list, except for the fact that it appeared on the 2010 year-end list, after it was released late last year in digital form only. Nevertheless, it’s so good that we’ve got to at least mention it again, just in case you’ve missed it.

I also need to remind everyone that this list represents releases that I’ve heard during the first six month of this year. All, some or none of these albums may be on the year-end list, as I hear newer releases, catch up with stuff from the first six months that I haven’t heard yet (such as Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo’s Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, Ben Williams’ State of Art and Vijay Iyer’s Tirtha, all of which are at the top of my very long “to get to” list), or simply change my mind, which is a jazz geek’s prerogative.

I hope that you’ll use this list as an excuse to check out something that you haven’t heard. Agreements, disagreements and additional suggestions are always welcomed.

Until the next time, the jazz continues…

2011 Atlanta Jazz Fest – Day 2 (5/29/11)

Posted in Atlanta Jazz Festival 2011, JazzLives!, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , on June 8, 2011 by Curtis Davenport

Sunday

Sunday at the Atlanta Jazz Fest started very well and ended not so well. And it had nothing to do with the music.

Sunday morning was a rare R & R day. The family and I got up, went out to breakfast, the came back to the hotel and went for a swim. We then head over to Piedmont Park. Traffic patterns were flowing better than Saturday, so we arrived in time to catch a bit of the last of the opening acts; The North Atlanta High School Jazz Band, under the direction of Adam Brooks. They were well rehearsed and swung nicely; it was a great treat to hear these promising kids as we were entering the park. They also featured a promising young vocalist named Brittany Carr, who performed an accomplished version of “Blue Skies”. Hopefully we’ll hear more from Ms. Carr in the future.

The young folks were an appetizer for the explosive main course that followed, in the person of trumpeter Sean Jones.  Mr. Jones was celebrating his birthday on Sunday and he was doing it in high style.  He kicked off his set with a scorching tune from his just released album No Need for Words, which managed to make it even hotter outside.  His band which included up and coming talent Brian Hogans on alto was every bit the equal of the leader (Mr. Hogans also has a new album out, titled Evidence of Things to Come - check it out!).  Set highlights were a take on Freddie Hubbard’s “Dear John” and two of the new numbers “Obsession” and “Momma”, which Jones dedicated to his mother, who in attendance, seeing him at a festival for the first time.

Next up was pianist Gerald Clayton, who has caused quite a bit of buzz in the jazz world of late.  Young Mr. Clayton is a talented pianist, whose style is a bit introspective and freely stretches boundaries.  He also loves to deconstruct standards, which he did to great effect on “My Shining Hour” and “Con Alma”. I enjoyed his set immensely. I can’t say the same for some of the audience, who seemed a bit confused and put-off by Clayton and his trio. I think the problem may have been that a trio like Clayton’s loses some of the intimacy that it needs, in a sprawling outdoor setting like the Atlanta Jazz Festival.  I noticed that a large part of the audience either left or turned their conversational volume up, which was a shame, because they missed some terrific music.

 My anticipation built after Clayton’s set, as we awaited Ninety Miles, the group featuring Stefon Harris on vibes, David Sánchez on tenor and Christian Scott on trumpet.   I expected this to be the highlight of what had already been a very fine festival.

However, I never got to see them.

While killing time after the Clayton set, my son and I decided to play catch.  While tossing the ball around, either a particle off of the ball or a gnat, flew into my left eye. I rubbed my eye to try to get the particle out. I think I rubbed it too hard. By the time we arrived back where my wife was sitting, her panicked reaction told the story. My eye had become extremely swollen and infected.  My wife and son pleaded with me to go to an urgent care or emergency room.  I finally acquiesced after getting a look at myself in my wife’s mirror.  As we packed up, Ninety Miles took the stage.  What I heard of them was great. Unfortunately, I only heard half of the first song.

Turns out that I had a scratched cornea; the doctor gave me eye drops, which soothed my eye and began the healing. It didn’t quell my disappointment though at having to miss what was likely a terrific festival closing set.

Overall, the 34th Atlanta Jazz Festival provided some great jazz and an awesome chance to relax with and hang with the family.  I can’t ask for much more than that.  We definitely plan on being back next year, but next time, I’ll wear goggles!

Atlanta Jazz Festival 2011 – Ninety Miles

Posted in Atlanta Jazz Festival 2011, JazzLives!, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by Curtis Davenport

Talk about finishing strong…The Piedmont Park portion of the 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival concludes tonight with Ninety Miles: a group composed of trumpeter Christian Scott, tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and some of Cuba’s finest jazz musicians. Their album, also called Ninety Miles, will be released June 21st, on Concord Picante Records.  Filmmaker Devin DeHaven has produced and directed a documentary film about the project that will be released this summer.

The group and project draw its name, of course, from the geographical distance between the U.S. and Cuba.  Though we are physically very close, politics, as we all know, has kept the countries far apart for over half a century. 

“This record is about the power of music to communicate, and break down some of the barriers that result from language and politics and culture,” says John Burk, Chief Creative Officer of Concord Music Group and producer of the album. He developed the idea for the project after experiencing first-hand the visceral energy exchange between artists and audiences at the Cuban Jazz Festival in 2008. After more than a year of negotiations with representatives of the Cuban music industry – not to mention clearing the various travel-related hurdles with the U.S. State Department and the Cuban government; Harris, Sánchez and Scott were booked  to perform in Havana in May 2010 with many of the same Cuban players he’d seen at the festival a couple of years earlier. Ninety Miles is a snapshot of the rehearsals just prior to the 2010 performance.

That snapshot will be on the Atlanta Jazz Festival stage tonight, at 9:00. If you’re in the area, it is a must-see event.

For further information about the 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival, visit their website: http://atlantafestivals.com/

For further information about the Ninety Miles Project, visit their website: http://www.ninetymilesproject.com/

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