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…

View original post 5,916 more words

Best Jazz Albums of 2017 (So Far): Closer Look, Pt. 2 – Instrumental Albums

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2017, CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2017 by curtjazz

Let’s now look at my top 10 albums (and one EP), on the instrumental side:

Akua’s Dance – Akua Dixon (Akua’s Music)

Cellist Akua Dixon has collaborated with musical greats of numerous genres, from classical to Broadway; from R&B to, of course, jazz. Whatever the idiom, she brings a gorgeous tone and an unfailing sense of lyricism, to the music. On Akua’s Dance, her third project as a leader in the last six years, she plays a baritone violin, which is basically an over-sized cello.  The full and present sound of the instrument, along with her hard swinging backing trio, including the welcome addition of guitarists Freddie Bryant and Russell Malone, make this her best solo album, by far. She covers all bases, from fun jazz (“Dizzy’s Smile”), to an irresistible cover of Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo”, to a compelling, worldly-wise vocal on Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away”. This album doesn’t sound like anything else on this list and that’s a great thing.

 

Back to Earth – Farnell Newton (Posi-Tone)

Portland, OR based Trumpeter/Composer/Educator Farnell Newton is one of the hardest working cats in the music business. Over the last few years, he has released a couple of very strong contemporary jazz projects (Class is Now in Session; Ready to Roll) and a fascinating collection of impromptu improvisations (10 Minute Trumpet Jams). On Back to Earth he has come home, with his first straight-ahead album in over a decade. And it is pure dynamite. Newton shows off his powerful chops and his flawless sense of swing, in a set of inventive originals, such as the soulful “Gazillionaire” and impressive covers, like a take on Freddie Hubbard’s classic “Arietas”, that does the legend proud. I’ve enjoyed all of Mr. Newton’s work over the years but I know that I will be reaching for Back to Earth, long after the end of 2017.

Boundary Issues – Chris Greene (Single Malt)

Like Farnell Newton, saxophonist Chris Greene’s star shines mostly on a regional basis, in this case, it’s Chicago. Regardless of his address, the dude just keeps dropping first-rate projects, that make me wish I lived closer to Chi-town, or that he toured more often. Boundary Issues, is an enjoyable set, that is very accessible but not at all patronizing. Mr. Greene’s saxophone is as rich and inventive as always and I have to give special props to Steve Corley for his next-level drum work. Most memorable track: a Silver meets Marley version of “Nica’s Dream”.

Brothers Under the Sun – Steve Nelson (HighNote)

Steve Nelson is one of the three best jazz vibraphonists alive today. But you may not have heard of him because he drops projects under his own name about as often as we experience a solar eclipse. He has spent most of his career elevating the works of others but when he steps out in front, it is an unequivocally special event. His latest album, a quartet date, is no exception. It’s a swinging mix of standards and originals, many of them composed by his friend and frequent musical partner, the late, great pianist, Mulgrew Miller. Brothers Under the Sun, is an elegant, swinging, good time from beginning to end; an exquisite musical statement and a subtle but fitting tribute to a giant who left us too soon.

Made in America – Bobby Watson (Smoke Sessions)

I love the concept of this album as much as I do the music. Saxophonist Bobby Watson, has created a tribute to a number of influential African Americans; some who are well known, such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Butterfly McQueen; and a few others, such as Bass Reeves and Major Taylor, who sent even me scrambling to Google more about them. But Made in America is not a dry history lesson; it is a living, energetic, creative and unapologetically  jazzy appreciation of those who paved the way, sometimes at great cost. It’s also quite evocative, as Watson has dropped in smile inducing references, such as quoting “Wild Blue Yonder”, in the Wendell Pruitt tribute (“Aviator”) and Lewis Nash “tapping” out the rhythm on “G.O.A.T.” (for Sammy Davis, Jr.). This project succeeds on all levels. Kudos to Mr. Watson and all involved.

The Music of John Lewis – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, feat. Jon Batiste and Wynton Marsalis (Blue Engine)

John Lewis, the pianist and guiding light of the Modern Jazz Quartet, passed away over 16 years ago. For many, their knowledge of him begins and ends with the MJQ. However, John Lewis was one of the great jazz composers of his time and one of the most affecting blues pianists that I’ve ever heard. The biggest surprise is that it has taken so long for there to be a full-scale, recorded tribute to his music. Perhaps, it’s because only Wynton and the JLCO could do it right. The most pleasant surprise for me, is the stellar work of Jon Batiste on piano. I knew of Mr. Batiste and I knew he had an impressive musical pedigree but, through no one’s fault but mine,  I’d mostly heard him in his day job, as musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Mr. Batiste, who is just 30, is a fantastic pianist, who embodies Lewis’ elegant swing, while adding a few of his own touches. The JLCO and Mr. Marsalis are of course, at the top of their game, the arrangements are inventive and the Lewis compositions selected, from “Django”, to “Two Bass Hit”, to “Spanish Steps”, are his absolute finest. As prolific as Mr. Lewis was, there is definitely need for a Volume 2 (and 3, for that matter). Let’s hope someone hears me.

Post Cool: Vol 1; The Night Shift – Carol Morgan (Self-Produced)

This disc appeals to me for so many reasons: First, it’s by Carol Morgan a trumpet player whose picture is in the dictionary under the phrase “criminally obscure”. Second, her front line partner is tenor saxophonist, Joel Frahm, who is next to Ms. Morgan in the aforementioned “photo”. Third, the music is fabulous. Nothing fancy, no big stars or pyrotechnics – it’s just four real pros, (Martin Wind – bass and Matt Wilson – drums, a couple of stellar musicians, round out the quartet – no piano), playing like it was the 2 am set in a small, smoky club. No frills, just damn good music. There are standards of the jazz canon (“Strollin'”, “Night in Tunisia”, “On a Misty Night”), given fresh life. There are also a couple of fine originals from Ms. Morgan’s and Mr. Frahm (“Night”, “Song for Mom”, respectively) that are very worthy additions. As of now, this set is only available via Ms. Morgan’s website (www.carolmorganmusic.com). It’s worth the trip because, while you’re there you might want to sample some of her other fine work.

Reach – Christian Sands (Mack Avenue)

Christian Sands first came on the jazz scene 15 years ago as a child prodigy who displayed flashes of brilliance that predicted a very bright future. Now at 27, with a number of high profile gigs under his belt, including his current spot as Christian McBride’s pianist of choice; Mr. Sands has dropped, Reach, his first major label album. Suffice to say those early predictions were accurate. His virtuosity on the keys has matured to the point where his runs are truly substantial.  His most impressive area of growth is as a composer. Sands wrote 8 of the album’s 10 songs, including impressive tributes to two of his influences; Chick Corea and Bud Powell. He has also composed a killer Latin track (“Oyeme!”) and a head nodding hip-hop groove (“Gangstalude”) . Additionally, there is an ominous, seven minute deconstruction of “Use Me”, the Bill Withers classic, featuring some killer jazz-rock guitar from Gilad Hekselman. Reach is a fine announcement of arrival from this young veteran.

Sabiduria – Eddie Palmieri (Ropeadope)

The greatest living bandleader in Latin Jazz has just turned 80 and he shows no signs of slowing down. As befitting someone who has been a major musical figure for six decades, the list of heavy hitters who join him for the celebration is impressive – Joe Locke is on vibes, Pretty Purdie, on the drums, Ronnie Cuber and Donald Harrison are two of the saxophonists, Marcus Miller, on bass and the list goes on. Sometimes, having so many guest stars can lead to confusion but that’s not the case here as Sabiduria is the strongest and most appropriately eclectic musical statement that I’ve heard from Mr. Palmieri in at least 15 years. There are tracks rich with history and some that explore new ground. And we’ve also got Locke and violinist Alfredo de la Fe, trading hot solos on “La Cancha”. Happy Birthday to “The Sun of Latin Music”. From the looks of things, he’s going to shine for quite a while more.

Serenade for Horace – Louis Hayes (Blue Note)

Another awesome octogenarian, Louis Hayes makes his Blue Note Records debut, as a leader, with this gorgeous, swinging tribute to his old boss Horace Silver. Thankfully, Mr. Hayes is experienced enough to not do a note for note regurgitation of the Silver classics, which are still fresh in most jazz fan’s minds and readily available. Instead, Serenade for Horace manages to capture the joyous spirit of Silver, while still making these tunes, some of which are over 60 years old, sound as if they were fresh compositions. A lot of this is due to the out in front presence of Steve Nelson on the vibes. Apart from his early work with Milt Jackson, Silver rarely worked with a vibraphonist, so Nelson leading the way on many of the tracks is invigorating. Gregory Porter drops by to sing his own new lyric on “Song for My Father”. Even if you own the Silver recording of all of these tunes, this disc is worth your while.

A Tribute to Art Blakey [EP] – Tony Allen (Blue Note)

Hell. Frickin’. Yeah!!! This is not a full album but a four song EP with an album’s worth of badass playing, as the legendary king of Afrobeat, Tony Allen, pays tribute to another percussion monster, the great Art Blakey. I love almost everything about this project – the song selection (“Moanin'”; “Night in Tunisia”; “Politely” and “Drum Thunder Suite”); the fresh sound of all of these familiar Blakey classics, when filtered through an Afrobeat lens; the cool, Buhaina-esque cover photo of Mr. Allen; the fact that the whole disc is begging to be sampled into a hot, hip-hop groove. So what don’t I love? It’s only four songs. It was just enough to make me want more. More Tony Allen and more Afrobeat Blakey, please!

And that’s our halftime show. A great first half of the year in jazz. I’ve got a stack of  CDs staring at me on my desk and even more album downloads in the computer waiting to be reviewed and shared with y’all. Gonna be a busy but rewarding rest of the year. More to come, soon. If you missed the complete list, see it HERE

Until then, the jazz continues…