Album Review: Harmony of Difference – Kamasi Washington

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2017 by curtjazz

KAMASI WASHINGTON – Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)

kamasi - harmony of differenceSaxophonist Kamasi Washington turned the jazz world upside down two years ago with his aptly titled, 2 CD, 174-minute debut album, The Epic. After such an expansive beginning, we all wondered what he would do for an encore. So here now, is Harmony of Difference, which once again, is creating major buzz among forward-thinking jazz lovers. It shares some things with its heralded forerunner; the arrangements are dense, insistent and never dull; Mr. Washington’s tenor is still edgy, yet melodic. However, Washington and company have opted for the “less is more” approach, as Harmony of Difference is an EP, clocking in at a scant 32 minutes, with only one of the six performances exceeding five minutes in length.

Personally, I love the brevity. For as good as The Epic is, it did get weighed down in spots by its, dare I say, “Epic-ness”. This time around we are treated to five short, expressive excursions, that take us through a survey of many modern jazz styles, from soul jazz, to post-bop, to Brazilian. “Desire”, the opener, owes its lush, melodic groove to those great Bob James arrangements during the heyday of CTI Records. “Humility”, is a horn driven, bop based, workout that packs a lot of great things into a little under three minutes, including terrific solo turns from Cameron Graves on piano, Dontae Winslow on trumpet and Washington on tenor. “Perspective” is irresistible pop soul jazz, reminiscent of some of the fine, early work of another Washington, named Grover. And “Integrity” takes us on a nice trip to Rio by way of the West Coast Get Down collective.

Finally, there is “Truth”, the 13 ½ minute centerpiece of this EP, which was first released last spring, at the Whitney Museum’s 2017 Biennial, along with an accompanying short film, directed by AG Rojas. It is a perfect counterpoint to the concision of the preceding selections, as the track builds, layer upon layer, keyboards, then guitar, then vibraphone, brass and finally, a wordless vocal choir. Once it builds to a crescendo, Washington steps in with a head nodding, groove permeated solo, which is then followed by the choir and orchestra, returning to triumphantly restate the theme. It is anthemic, beautiful and deceptively simple.

Though Harmony of Difference is much shorter than its predecessor, it is no less of a complete musical statement. It is a luminous example of what I see, as 21st century jazz.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars – Another triumph for Kamasi Washington and company.

Album Review: Lighthouse Reverie – Jen Siukola

Posted in CD Reviews, Under The Radar, Unsung Women of Jazz with tags , , , , on October 17, 2017 by curtjazz

JEN SIUKOLALighthouse Reverie (Self Release)

JenSiukola-coverJen Siukola is an Indianapolis based trumpeter, educator and composer, currently on the faculty of the University of Indianapolis and Ball State University. On Lighthouse Reverie, her debut recording as a leader, she presents a program consisting of her original tunes, with a solid group of Indianapolis based musicians, as her sidemen. The date is produced by the veteran Indiana jazzman, Mark Buselli, who is also one of Ms. Siukola’s mentors.

Ms. Siukola is a very good composer and arranger. For a relatively young artist, she displays an impressive ear for bop and post-bop conventions. She lists Tom Harrell and Kenny Dorham as influences and some of these tunes sound like they came from the pens of those two legendary cats.

Lighthouse Reverie includes several winning performances, that show off the considerable chops of Ms. Siukola’s quintet. She is a technically solid trumpet player, especially in her middle register. When she picks up the flugelhorn, as she does on the title track, Siukola seems to be in her comfort zone; displaying a warm, buttery tone, that I could listen to all day. “The Homp Romp” is another standout, swinging in a hard bop bag, with strong solos by the leader, Steve Allee on piano and Rob Dixon on tenor. Mr. Allee is a new name to me and I was impressed with his work, throughout the album. “Bog Walking”, is a bright, melodic tune with a hummable melody, reminiscent of “Yardbird Suite”. Dixon and Allee again, are the standouts. Ms. Siukola’s best work is on “The Dawn Approaches Like Tears”, a melancholy, waltz-timed tune, straight out of Harrell, on which Jen again turns to the larger horn, for an achingly gorgeous solo, on the heels of another striking statement by Mr. Dixon; I need to explore his work, as well.

Jen Siukola is off to a very fine start with Lighthouse Reverie. I’m looking forward to seeing what her future holds.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars – A well written and well executed debut album

Album Review: Strykin’ Ahead – Dave Stryker

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2017, CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October 11, 2017 by curtjazz

DAVE STRYKER – Strykin’ Ahead (Strikezone Records)

Dave-Stryker-Strykin-Ahead-CoverIn my book, veteran guitar master Dave Stryker has been on a hot streak of late. The former Jack McDuff and Stanley Turrentine sideman has released a new project in each of the last four years on his own Strikezone label and each has been better than its predecessor. His latest, Strykin’ Ahead, continues that trend.

While Stryker has always been a strong performer in any setting, I’ve personally grown quite fond of the guitar/organ/vibes/drums configuration that he has used on his two “Eight Track” albums as well as on this one. I first fell in love with that sound when I first heard Grant Green’s Street of Dreams, and Big John Patton’s Let ‘Em Roll, some three decades ago. For me, there’s something about this type of quartet sound that’s relaxing, yet energizing.

Set free from the conceptual moorings of the Eight Track and Turrentine tribute dates, Mr. Stryker and his regular cohorts, Jared Gold on organ, McClenty Hunter on drums and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, deliver an eclectic and consistently interesting mix of jazz favorites and Stryker originals.  It may sound like a cliché, but there was truly not a bad track on the disc. They hit the ground running with “Shadowboxing”, a hard-charging, Stryker-penned minor blues, and they don’t look back. Stryker’s strong compositional skills are a revelation to me, since I’ve only really become familiar with his work as a leader, over the last five years. “New You”, is a bright and infectious tune, based on the changes of “There Will Never Be Another You”, highlighted by hard swinging solos by Stryker, Nelson and Gold. “Blues Down Deep”, is exactly what the title implies – 100% blues grease, with Stryker holding a séance with the spirits of a pair of Kings (B.B. and Albert), while Gold testifies on the B3. It was the blues, but it made me feel good.

The high points of the cover tunes were a bouncy “Joy Spring”, where I not only appreciated Stryker’s guitar but also Gold’s fine work on the pedals, as he kept a compelling bass line. Nelson is on point on this number as well as throughout the rest of the disc. He is truly a pro’s pro and he is a welcome addition to Stryker’s group. Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower”, gets a nice reworking as a light bossa, with Nelson’s vibes as the star. “Who Can I Turn To”, was a most pleasant surprise. I’ve never cared much for the tune, perhaps owing to the many overwrought vocal versions that I’ve endured over the years. This group turns it into a lovely jazz waltz, with very tasty solos from all involved, especially the leader. Perhaps I’ll give the song another chance.

Strykin’ Ahead is Dave Stryker’s 28th album as a leader and my personal favorite, so far. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, it’s a good place to start. It’s one of the best jazz albums of 2017.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars – One of the best Jazz albums of 2017

Birthday Video Tribute: Thelonious Monk is 100!

Posted in Video Vault with tags , on October 10, 2017 by curtjazz

Thelonious Sphere Monk…

The name is synonymous with jazz. His quirky and hip look (the suits! the glasses! the hats!), is synonymous with jazz, his style of speaking, his impromptu dancing, his compositional style, with its melodic dissonance and odd twists, all are the epitome the music and its singular lifestyle.

Don’t Blame Me 

IMO, Monk is jazz’s greatest composer, next to his idol, Duke Ellington. Artists of all ages and abilities have performed some of his music: “‘Round Midnight”; “Straight, No Chaser”; “Epistrophy”; “Pannonica”; “Ruby, My Dear”; “Well, You Needn’t” and so many more of the classics of jazz.

I Mean You

Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr., was born 100 years ago, in Rocky Mount, NC on October 10, 1917. He died on February 17, 1982, at the home of his dear friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Many others, who are far more qualified, have written so much more about Monk, so I’m just going to share four video clips of some great live performances, featuring his longtime saxman Charlie Rouse, drummer Ben Riley and others.

Rhythm a Ning

Happy 100th Birthday, Monk! Thank you for all the gifts that you gave us.

‘Round Midnight

Album Review: Americuba – Havana Maestros

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by curtjazz

Havana MaestrosSometimes, an idea will sound crazy on paper but the execution will be terrific. Like this one – dig through the vaults of Warner/Atlantic Records. Grab some of the label’s biggest pop hits; from the last five decades and strip away everything but the vocals. Now, bring a group of legendary Cuban musicians into Havana’s Abdala Studios, open the bar and then, have them lay down some new instrumental tracks behind the vocals. The result is Americuba by the Havana Maestros. I confess that when I first read the concept in the press kit, I cringed. When I popped the CD into the player, I expected disaster and in a couple of instances, I got it. But most of the tracks are, at worst, quirky fun and at best, downright terrific.

The album kicks off with Chic’s “Good Times”. Recast as a guitar infused Cha-Cha, this disco warhorse sounded different. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It wasn’t bad at all, it was just good enough to intrigue me into listening further. Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”, fell into that same category – pleasantly different but not enough to surpass the original. Then came Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” and the party was ON! Harold Lopez-Nussa lays down a killer piano line, Evaristo Dario drops in a nasty bari sax, the horns (trombone on top, of course) are blaring and we are suddenly in midst of a sweaty night at The Palladium. Before that groove lets us go, we get the incomparable Janelle Monae. “Tightrope” was always a great tune but this arrangement takes it to another level. In this setting, Ms. Monae sounds like the celebrated salsa princess, La India, during her 1990’s heyday. If you’re not up and moving on this track, check your pulse. “Say a Little Prayer” is also surprisingly good, with Dionne’s cool, bouncy vocal stylings wrapping around the Maestros simpatico backing like a soft leather glove.

In addition, there are a couple of strong tracks from the Havana Maestros, sans the American vocals; a few members of the group are part of the Buena Vista Social Club and “Ritmo Cubano” and “Ven” sound like a couple of lost tracks from that venerable group’s classic albums. On the delta side of the ledger, Fun.’s “We Are Young” and B.O.B & Hayley Williams’ “Airplanes”, completely miss the mark, but hey, that’s why they invented the “Skip Track” button.

Havana Maestros Americuba isn’t a classic but if you love Afro-Cuban music and you have an open mind, give it a shot – it’s a surprisingly enjoyable ride.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars – Creative, refreshing Afro-Cuban fun

Album Review: Bel Hommage – Patti LaBelle

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , on October 7, 2017 by curtjazz

PATTI LaBELLE – Bel Hommage (GPE Records)

patti labelle - bel hommageLet me start by saying that I am a big fan of Ms. Patti LaBelle. I consider her to be one of the great R&B/Soul Vocalists of our time. What some have considered to be excesses, I’ve always thought to be part of her inimitable style. And she is from the generation of vocalists (perhaps the last one) who don’t just sing but who also know their way around many genres of song. I still thrill to her blues performances in the classic 1984 film A Soldier’s Story.

When I heard that this legend’s first album in a decade was to be a jazz vocal album, I was quite pleased. Because I figured that if anyone could make a smooth transition from pop to jazz, it would be this great diva.  So, now I will get to the point. Patti LaBelle’s Bel Hommage, though well-intentioned, is uneven and a bit of a disappointment.

Most of the problems here are not Ms. LaBelle’s fault. At 73, her voice is still powerful and supple. She is more than up to the task of handling the jazz tunes and pop standards that have been selected. If I must fault her for anything, it’s that at times, she is too mannered in her approach. She left behind her trademark earthiness, in exchange for the precise diction of an Ella Fitzgerald. But that is a minor quibble. What really undoes Ms. LaBelle are the arrangements and her musical partners. A respected legend like Patti LaBelle could easily draw the participation of some of the top arrangers, producers and musicians in the jazz idiom. Instead the arrangements are in many cases, anchored to adult soul and smooth jazz clichés, with synthesizer fills and overdubbing intruding in places where less would have been more. Instead of enhancing the proceedings, I feel that Ms. LaBelle is often fighting to be heard over the cacophony, which is a damn shame. She deserves better.

Bel Hommage has enough highlights to let you know what could have been, with a better support system. “The Jazz in You” gets things off to a great start – soulful, bluesy and swinging; this is Patti as sassy jazz chanteuse, and it’s a winning formula. It’s hands-down the best of the up-tempo tracks. Ms. LaBelle also shines on a trio of performances that allow her to access her subtle, philosophical side. “Don’t Explain”, Billie Holiday’s anthem of infidelity and understanding, is appropriately heartbreaking. “Song for Old Lovers”, is in the same vein as “Don’t Explain”, giving Patti a chance to give another wonderful, world-weary but resolute, performance. And “Here’s to Life” is a gorgeous valedictory statement – just the singer and the pianist, in glorious and proud reflection. Let’s hope that there’s more like these four performances in the future, because Patti LaBelle – Jazz Singer, is a fabulous concept; it just needs better execution.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars – Patti fights to rise above it all

The Story of Helen Morgan, if You Didn’t Know Already

Posted in Uncategorized on September 5, 2017 by curtjazz

I called him morganFor those, like me, who have seen and loved I Called Him Morgan, here is an extended take on the Helen Morgan interview that serves as the film’s centerpiece. Thank you Larry Reni Thomas, for the fascinating original interview and Jason Palmer for the post that I am reblogging.

Jason Palmer's Weblog

I recieved this story in my email box many times from friends of mine and I thought I’d share this piece of debated history with those who didn’t know about the details surrounding Lee Morgan’s death.

The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan

By Larry Reni Thomas

Lee Morgan, the fiery-hot, extremely talented jazz trumpet player, died much too soon. His skyrocketing career was cut short, at age 33, one cold February night in 1972, at a Manhattan club called Slug’s when he was shot to death by his 46-year-old common law wife Helen. At the time, Morgan was experiencing a comeback of sorts. He had been battling a serious heroin addiction for years and by most accounts, was drug free.

His gig at Slug’s was the talk of the jazz world and was a must-see for all of those in the know. There was always a packed house during his…

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