Archive for the CD Reviews Category

Two New Jazz Albums To Warm Your Holidays

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , on November 29, 2017 by curtjazz

Each Holiday Season usually brings a few new discs in most genres, including jazz. Here’s our take on a couple that stand apart from the rest:

Champian Fulton – Christmas with Champian

Christmas with Champian final coverThis delightful Oklahoma native has had quite a year – She released a fine, all instrumental album (Speechless). This was followed by a terrific, live date, as a co-leader, with the great tenor saxophonist, Scott Hamilton (The Things We Did Last Summer). Champian Fulton now caps 2017 with Christmas with Champian, her first Holiday disc. It is another winner.

To be successful, Christmas albums, need to exude a certain joy of the season and this one does, from the finger-snapping backbeat of “White Christmas” (nice work by drummer, Fukushi Tainaka, throughout) to the closer, “Merry, Merry Christmas”, a lovely original number by Ms. Fulton. The rest of the album is filled with familiar songs of the season but thanks to Ms. Fulton’s first-rate piano work and the rock-solid backing of her sidemen; Mr. Tainaka, bassist David Williams and Champian’s dad, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, these tunes have new life.

Then there are Ms. Fulton’s vocals – to these ears, her sound is an amalgam of Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson, to which she has added a touch of Blossom Dearie’s playfulness and charm. Yet, it manages to be all her own. She has grown by leaps and bounds as a singer, in the decade that she has been a part of the jazz scene. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, opens with a cool, bluesy piano figure, which pulled me in, prior to Ms. Fulton’s sassy vocal, which was then followed by a rollicking piano solo…Nice. Papa Stephen is on board, with his flugelhorn, for a swinging “Sleigh Ride”, with dad being pushed a little by his baby girl during his solo. That brought a smile to my face. “A Child is Born” is the stronger of the album’s two instrumental tracks, thanks to Ms. Fulton’s sensitive piano and outstanding work on the bass by Mr. Williams.

Order through Ms. Fulton’s website www.champian.net

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars – Champian Fulton has produced a classic Holiday album that should be heard all year round.

 

Jason Paul Curtis – These Christmas Days

Jason-Paul-Curtis-These-Christmas-Days-CoverJason Paul Curtis is a Washington D.C. based vocalist and songwriter, who mostly works with a big band, called Swing Shift and a small combo, Swinglab. He is a pleasant, modern swinger, in the Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Bublé vein. For this, his second Holiday themed album, he has concentrated on his own music, having written eight of the album’s ten tracks.

These Christmas Days, has a warm, family feeling, with most of the tracks referencing family celebrations and Christmas memories with his children. Curtis is in fact, joined by his daughter, Isabella, on vocals, on two of the album’s more memorable tracks; the lightly swinging, “December Again”, which will touch a soft spot in the hearts of any of us who have watched our kids grow up too quickly; and the bouncy, “I Want Snow”, with a warm alto sax interlude by Dave Schiff. “Came Winter”, a finger snapping piece, with a punchy big band arrangement, and good solos. It’s a winning tune but its lyrical content is more along the lines of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, with its topic of Holiday season bitterness against the treachery of a former lover. Not exactly one for decking the halls. “I’ll Feel Christmas”, with its Motown derived backbeat and the happy freneticism of “Christmas Breakfast” are more like it, as they celebrate, respectively, the start of the Holiday Season, in the city and the joy of Christmas morning with those you love.

The arrangements are sharp and tight and Mr. Curtis is in excellent voice, throughout. If you’re looking for a well-played, Holiday jazz album, with tunes that are not in the traditional vein, give These Christmas Days a try.

Order through CDBaby.com Click HERE

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. A Charismatic, swinging and warm Holiday album.

Album Review: Handful of Keys – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2017 by curtjazz

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Handful of Keys (Blue Engine Records)

Handful-of-Keys

Handful of Keys, the sixth album released by the JALC label on their own Blue Engine imprint, was recorded over three nights as the prolific orchestra opened their 2016-2017 season, by celebrating a century’s worth of jazz piano. On the recording, there are six pianists, ranging in age from 13-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander to 89-year-old stride master, Dick Hyman, playing compositions by some of the 20th Century’s most outstanding pianist/composers, including Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and James P. Johnson. In all except one instance, the arrangements were by the pianists or JALC Orchestra members.

This album virtually had “can’t miss” stamped on it, from the beginning. JALC Orchestra is at the top of their game, as are the piano players. And the arrangements often breathed new life into pieces that we have heard many times. Helen Sung’s arrangement of “Four by Five” adds richness to Tyner’s original and the solos by Ms. Sung on piano, Victor Goines on piano and drummer Ali Jackson, are on fire. Walter Blanding’s lush arrangement, ripe with flutes and muted trumpets set a perfect scene for young Mr. Alexander on Evans’ “Very Early”. Joey’s precocious brilliance has been done to death, so I will just say that he was in his customary fine form and the arranger also contributes some nice tenor work. 19-year-old Isaiah J. Thompson, whose name is new to me, floored my twice – first on an epic version of “Lulu’s Back in Town”, that was a virtual history of jazz piano all by itself, with a stellar chart by Vincent Gardner; then on a hard swinging and deeply soulful take on Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom”. I have GOT to hear more from Mr. Thompson. Then there is Myra Melford, an avant-garde pianist, with whom I am, again, unfamiliar. She leads a Ted Nash arrangement of her own composition, “The Strawberry”, which Mr. Nash has turned into a Latin infused tour-de-force. Ms. Melford names Andrew Hill, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor as some of her influences and I hear a bit of all three of those giants in her attack. She is stretching her use of the keyboard to the limits of the boundaries of tradition, laid down by Nash’s arrangement and it is a thrill to listen to. No wonder Wynton takes his only solo of the album on this piece. He fills his horn with expressive growls, trills and cries, equal in unbridled joy, to the arrangement itself.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars. Great composers + great arrangements + great pianists = a great album.

What’s New (and Good) from WJ3 Records

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

WJ3 Records is another of the cadre of the small, but mighty, jazz record labels that have cropped up in our post-CD society. Founded and helmed by drummer Willie Jones III, WJ3 releases around 3 – 4 new projects each year, featuring top flight mainstream jazz masters such as pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Eric Reed, L.A. based guitarist Jacques Lesure and Mr. Jones, himself. I first became hip to WJ3 about a decade ago, when I was assigned by a publication, to review a couple of their new releases. I can honestly say, that I’ve never heard a bad album from any of their artists.

Here now is a review of two recent WJ3 releases:

Jacques Lesure – For the Love of You

jacques lesureJacques Lesure…educator, actor, social media raconteur, and above all, master guitarist. Though his name is still unfamiliar to many, Mr. Lesure has been part of the music scene for over 30 years. With an inviting, single-note guitar line that is reminiscent of Grant Green, but infused with the warmth of a Kenny Burrell, Jacques Lesure, is always worth listening to, be it live or on one of his recordings, the last three of which have been on WJ3, including his latest, For the Love of You.

The title of the album should give you a hint about the vibe. Whereas his two prior efforts When She Smiles and Camaraderie, were fine, straight-ahead blowing sessions, For the Love of You,  is more accessible, but just as good; featuring several, mid-tempo romantic tracks, with titles straight out of pop radio. It’s a perfect antidote to a long day. Mr. Lesure is as always, in top form, as are his band mates, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Tony Dumas and WJ3’s chief, Willie Jones III, on drums.

Strong performances abound, including a bright, infectious version of “The Lamp is Low”, with a tasty solo by Mr. Reed; “Put On a Happy Face”, on which Lesure builds a simple starting line, layer by layer, into a very nice solo. His tribute to one of his musical idols, “That’s Mr. Burrell, Thank You”, is a head nodding, finger snapping blues, that is pure fun. It will be a definite crowd favorite during his live performances. The centerpiece is Cedar Walton’s anthemic classic, “Holy Land”. I’ve heard many versions of this tune over the years; this is one of the best. Following the familiar opening theme, Mr. Lesure digs down deep and delivers a blistering solo, which clearly inspires Reed, who then matches Lesure’s virtuosity in his turn.  Dumas and Jones take strong turns before all four musicians trade eights until the close.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars – Another first-rate album from Jacques Lesure. It will appeal to fans of all categories of jazz.

 

Willie Jones III – My Point Is…

willie jones iiiWillie Jones III is one busy cat, in addition to leading his own group and running WJ3 records, he also is a first call sideman and producer on numerous projects outside of his label. If he is spreading himself too thin, it certainly is not in evidence on My Point Is…, his seventh album as a leader. This protégé of Albert “Tootie” Heath, recorded this album with some of his own label’s top talent, who also happen to be some of the best in the current jazz world; trumpet master Eddie Henderson, the criminally underrated Ralph Moore on tenor, the legendary Buster Williams on bass and the soon to be legendary Eric Reed, on piano.

I first became a fan of Mr. Jones, when I reviewed his fourth album, The Next Phase. The first thing I noticed was Jones’ rock solid timing and that even on ballads, he swings like mad. Nothing in that respect has changed since 2010. Like two of my other favorite working drummers – Kobie Watkins and Ocie Davis, Jones has an innate gift for pushing the musicians playing with him, while still doing things that are unfailingly rhythmically interesting.

The selections are a nice mix of Jones’ originals, along with a few from the band and one each by Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. “Manhattan Melodies” a Reed composition from about 20 years ago, open the disc on a high note. I’ve heard three versions of this tune over the years and this one is my favorite. The theme takes on new life in the hands of the two horn players, who punch it up with strong solos. Buster Williams’ ballad, “Christina”, offers a nice opportunity for a muted Henderson to remind us of the good ways that Miles influenced him. “The Maze”, a tune that Herbie wrote for his debut album, is given a fresh reading here. The sinuous backbeat set by Jones, followed by Reed’s funky solo, pulled me right in. Yes, I was sitting at the keyboard with eyes closed and head nodding. I see an interesting hip-hop sample in this track’s future. The title cut is the best thing on the album, with Williams and Jones feathering an intricate nest for some sweet mute work by Eddie and a rolling piano solo from Reed. This was, and still is, on heavy rotation in my playlist.

I’ve never gone wrong with a Willie Jones III album and My Point Is… is no exception. Solid writing, first rate playing and a final product, that is a fine example of modern jazz.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars. Another straight-ahead jazz winner from Willie Jones III and WJ3 Records.

Two New Releases from Posi-Tone Records

Posted in CD Reviews, New on the Playlist, Under The Radar, Who's New in Jazz with tags , , , , on November 11, 2017 by curtjazz

West Coast based producer Marc Free, heads up one of the best little labels in jazz today, Posi-Tone Records. They consistently release high quality jazz, featuring respected vets, such as guitarist Ed Cherry and trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and also some of the finest up and coming names on the scene today. Here’s our review of the latest from a couple of those new(er) faces.

Bruce Harris – Beginnings

bruce harrisNew York native Bruce Harris makes an impressive debut as a leader, with this album. The trumpeter is a graduate of SUNY Purchase and a protégé of the great Jon Faddis. He has paid his dues over the last few years, playing with Barry Harris, T.S. Monk and Jimmy Cobb, among many others. On this joyous album, he has gone with a nice mix of jazz standards and a few originals that demonstrate his solid compositional skills.

Harris utilizes an accomplished rhythm section of Michael Weiss on piano, Clovis Nicolas on bass and drummer Pete Van Nostrand; along with a talented group of rotating saxophonists, including three of my personal favorites, Dmitry Baevsky, Jerry Weldon and Grant Stewart. Mr. Harris’ tone is what immediately draws you in; it is positively ebullient and clear as a bell, reminiscent of a young Clark Terry.  “Ask Questions” a jubilant Harris original kicks off the proceedings, with strong solos from the leader, Baevsky and baritone saxophonist Frank Basile. Prince’s “Do U Lie” is reborn as a fabulous, up-tempo, 4/4 feature for Harris, who drops one his best solos on the record. I’d never heard such a lively take on “Ill Wind” before now. I liked it, a lot, with Harris and Weldon playing musical tag over the rhythm section’s insistent beat. Harris’ “The Step” is a finger-snapping joyride, which lets Weiss and Nicholas in on the solo fun, in addition to the horns.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars – Beginnings is a fine start for Bruce Harris. I enjoyed every minute and I look forward to what’s next.

 

Behn Gillece – Walk of Fire

behn gilleceVibraphonist Behn Gillece has been a Posi-Tone mainstay for the past couple of years, co-leading a group with saxophonist Ken Fowser, guesting on the albums of label mates, such as Walt Weiskopf and Michael Dease and leading his own group, which released impressive projects in 2015 (Mindset) and 2016 (Dare to Be). Keeping up that album per year pace, Mr. Gillece has released Walk of Fire, which is his most mature and fully realized project to date.

For this album, Mr. Gillece was inspired by the instrumentation on Joe Henderson’s Blue Note classic, Mode for Joe, on which Henderson used a septet of three horns, plus vibes and a traditional piano, bass, drums rhythm section. Walk of Fire replicates that sound on most of its tracks, with Dease on trombone, Weiskopf on tenor and another label mate, the brilliant Bruce Harris on trumpet. The rhythm section is Adam Birnbaum on piano, bassist Clovis Nicolas and drummer Jason Tiemann.

The ten compositions are all by Gillece and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. Things get started with the title cut, which sounds like a Mode for Joe, lost track with Gillece contributing a driving solo over the hard-swinging theme. This cat has grown exponentially over the last few years, to the point where I would now place him in the upper echelon of vibraphonists working today.  Gillece then gives way to strong, brief statements by Weiskopf and Dease. “Fantasia Brasileira” is a beautiful bossa, with an infectious head and tasty ‘bone from Dease. “Bag’s Mood”, is, as you would suspect, a tribute to that soulful master of the vibes, Milt Jackson. Gillece swings hard in the pocket and this time Harris joins in on the fun with some high-flying trumpet work. It’s a feel good track that I had on repeat for about 30 minutes. On “Celestial Tidings”, the horns lay out and you get to hear Gillece very much in a Bobby Hutcherson bag, with shifting rhythms and terrific solos that will keep you engaged.

When I first heard Behn Gillece a few years back, I was immediately impressed by his potential. Now, on Walk of Fire, he has arrived.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars: Highly recommended straight ahead jazz. One of the best albums that I’ve heard this year.

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