Archive for the CD Reviews Category

Album Review: Michael Pedicin – Why Stop Now…Ubuntu

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , on October 9, 2013 by curtjazz

This review first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Michael Pedicin

Michael Pedicin

WHY STOP NOW…UBUNTU – GroundBlue Records GB0001  Why Stop Now; Tunji; Downtown Found; Then I Saw You; Trane Stop; 27 Up; Newtown; Song of The Underground Railroad; Ubuntu

PERSONNEL: Michael Pedicin, tenor saxophone; Johnnie Valentino, guitar; Andy Lalasis, acoustic bass; Rick Germanson, acoustic piano, fender rhodes piano; Vic Stevens, drums

By Curtis Davenport

For every “star” that the jazz media gets excited about, there are ten cats like Michael Pedicin.

Guys who are strong technicians, who day in and day out can play just about anything, who make a living in the studios and on the big name tours but whose names are forgotten by the public as soon as they are mentioned by the star when/if they introduce the band. Michael Pedicin’s name was new to me when I received this disc for review but there was something naggingly familiar about it. I had heard of him before but I couldn’t recall where. Then I started doing a bit of research and it all came together. I cut my musical teeth on the albums in the ‘70’s that came out of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. Geek that I was/am, I also read the liner notes of these albums voraciously.  Michael Pedicin (or Michael Pedicin, Jr. as he was known then) appeared in the sax section of a countless number of these records.  In addition to his time over at Sigma Sound Studios, Pedicin spent two years in Dave Brubeck’s group, founded Temple University’s jazz studies program and earned a doctorate in psychology.   Now Michael Pedicin is finally playing the music that he wants to play. Why Stop Now…Ubuntu is the latest in a series of strong, personal musical statements that Pedicin has made over the last six years.

Pedicin freely admits to having two major musical influences, Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. The two covers on the album are Coltrane tunes. However even on the other selections, which were composed by Pedicin or members of his band, the spirit of the two mentors is quite strong. “Tunji”, a rarely covered tune from the 1962 Coltrane album, is majestic with a searching statement from Pedicin’s sax, which cascades through multiple choruses and a swinging 4/4 solo by pianist Rick Germanson. The doubling of the tenor and Johnnie Valentino’s guitar on the melody line adds a nice touch. “Song of the Underground Railroad”, from The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions, is given a quasi hip hop update, which works only because of Pedicin’s hard grooving solo.

Mr. Pedicin is also an outstanding interpreter of ballads, which is evidenced on “Then I Saw You”, written by Valentino, on which the tenorman lets his passion flow as he caresses each note, making an articulate, romantic statement before turning things over to Mr. Valentino for a tasty single line solo. “Newtown” is a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of the infamous mass murder at the Connecticut elementary school, also written by Valentino. Here Pedicin is more like Brecker than Trane as he conveys the despair that we all felt on that day last December, before changing tempo in the mid-section as he looks for hope in the midst of the bleakness. “Why Stop Now” crackles with energy as Pedcin alternates staccato and legato passages in front of Rick Germanson’s rolling piano and Valentino’s guitar. Valentino, a noted L.A. session cat, is a strong composer and has a bit of Grant Green in his guitar, which for me is never a bad thing. Milwaukee native Germanson is a veteran of many recordings, including four good records as a leader. His skittish solo on “Trane Stop” is a highlight.

For me, the difference between an “artist” and a “performer” is the finding of one’s voice. It can come at an early age, it can come late or it can never come. Michael Pedicin apparently found his sometime around age 60 and Why Stop Now…Ubuntu is one of the sweet fruits.

Album Review – Loston Harris – Swingfully Yours

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October 7, 2013 by curtjazz

This review first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Loston Harris

loston harris

SWINGFULLY YOURS – Magenta Label Group LHM-CD-101  Kiss and Run; Nice Work If You Can Get It; I’m Old Fashioned; Hey You With The Crazy Eyes; How About You; I’ve Got The World On A String; 9:26 Special; The Lamp Is Low; You Can’t Love ‘Em All

PERSONNEL: Loston Harris, piano, vocals; Ian Hendrickson-Smith, tenor saxophone; Gianluca Renzi, bass; Carmen Intorre, Jr, drums

By Curtis Davenport

I was very pleased to see this CD from Loston Harris come across my desk. I had first enjoyed the work of this Virginia native in the late’90’s, when his Comes Love CD was on the playlist of the radio station I was then working for. His recordings in the ensuing 15 years have been sporadic but always enjoyable. Swingfully Yours, his fifth disc, is no exception.

Many New Yorkers are already familiar with Mr. Harris from his decade as a headliner in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, a role previously held by Bobby Short. Those in Los Angeles know him from his regular gigs at The Whisper. However on his recordings Harris has consistently shed his cabaret conventions in favor of a hard swinging, somewhat percussive piano style that betray his musical beginnings as a drummer. When you find out a little about Mr. Harris’ background, you understand his sound. He’s a protégé of Ellis Marsalis, who he met through Harry Connick, Jr. Harris also has studied with Geri Allen and the late Dr. Billy Taylor. With all those folks around him, how could Loston keep from swinging? And like his piano pal Connick, Harris also sings rather well.

On Swingfully Yours, Mr. Harris sticks to the formula that has worked so well for him in the past; well-known standards mixed with a few rarities from the great composers.  Harris himself describes the album quite succinctly on the inside cover: “This recording is all about swing. No torch songs or ballads, just tunes with tempos that make you wanna tap your toes.” He is accompanied by his new working group, a simpatico trio of young New York based pros; bassist Gianluca Renzi, drummer Carmen Intorre, Jr. and Ian Hendrickson-Smith on tenor sax. They all get where the leader wants to go and they take him there in high style.

Harris’ early albums concentrated on instrumentals with a few vocals thrown in.  Now, perhaps due to the expectations of his cabaret audience, that balance has reversed.  Swingfully Yours has only two instrumental tracks but both are choice. The disc springs to life with one of them, “Kiss and Run”, the minor classic, performed memorably in the past by Johnny Hartman and Bill Henderson, among others. Here Harris and company romp joyously through it as if opening their nightly set. You can hear one of Harris’ teachers, Dr. Taylor, all over Loston’s festive solo, as Renzi and Intorre keep perfect time. He is followed by Hendrickson-Smith, a very versatile and creative saxman who deserves much wider recognition and brief statements from Renzi and Intorre before the out chorus. It’s classy without sacrificing an ounce of swing. The other instrumental is “9:26 Special”, Harris’ arrangement of “9:20 Special” the swing chestnut by longtime Basie saxophonist Earle Warren. This arrangement was so infectious that I listened at least three times before moving on. Harris is not only a fine soloist but a good accompanist as well. I loved the intricate figures he was playing in support of Hendrickson-Smith on this track and throughout the album. Among the vocal tracks the most notable were “The Lamp is Low” taken at bop speed with a Petersonesque solo by the leader and the saxophonist matching him step for speedy step; “Nice Work if You Can Get It” has an inventive mid-tempo boogie rhythm with a real strong left hand from Harris and “How About You”, is taken at a mid-tempo burn that makes it the closest thing to a ballad on this set. Harris’ vocal put this old warhorse over in a delightful manner that says “I’ve sung this a hundred times and I’m still finding new things in it”. Because he does, we do too.

Swingfully Yours is another fine album from Loston Harris, who has grown by leaps and bounds as a pianist and as a singer over his two decade career. There was only a two-year gap between this album and its predecessor. That’s encouraging. Perhaps it’s a sign that those of us outside of NYC and LA will hear from Mr. Harris a bit more often.

Album Review: Chick Corea – The Vigil

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2013 by curtjazz

chick corea - the vigil

THE VIGIL – Stretch Records CJA-34578-02 Galaxy 32 Star 4; Planet Chia; Portals to Forever; Royalty; Outside of Space; Pledge for Peace; Legacy

PERSONNEL: Chick Corea, piano, Motif XF8, Moog Voyager; Tim Garland, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute; Charles Altura, electric guitar, acoustic guitar; Harien Feraud, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Gayle Moran Corea, vocals; Stanley Clarke, bass; Ravi Coltrane, saxophone

At 72, an age when many are looking to take things a bit easier, Armando Anthony Corea is busier than ever. For the past decade, the 20 time Grammy Winner has been releasing new albums at the rate of a little over one per year. There have been trio dates, duos with Gary Burton and a couple of Return to Forever reunion tours. I think that those RTF reunions had an effect on Chick because his new album The Vigil has a decidedly RTF flavor.

Don’t misunderstand; The Vigil is not a Return to Forever album. Mr. Corea spends about half the time playing acoustic piano and he even drops a traditional 4/4 swing on a couple of tracks but after the last few projects with Burton, Eddie Gomez, the late Paul Motian, et al, I thought that perhaps Mr. Corea had said goodbye to his electric self after RTF played their last live sets in 2011. Thankfully, he had not. The album cover, with its decidedly L. Ron Hubbard-esque artwork, should tell you right away that the ‘Electric Chick’ is still with us.

This seven song set is Corea’s first album of all original tunes in over a decade. ‘Electric Chick’ throws the first punch on “Galaxy 32 Star 4”; a driving sharp-edged track with Chick burning up his synthesizers with glee and ample support from French bassist Hadrien Feraud and Marcus Gilmore, a world-class drummer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a while before finding out just today that he is the grandson of the legendary Roy Haynes (which explains a lot). Chick is shredding, Gilmore is throwing bombs and Feraud and percussionist Pernell Saturnino are setting a rock solid bottom. It’s a really powerful start. “Planet Chia” brings us ‘Acoustic Chick’ playing those rock infused Spanish rhythms that have been his trademark for decades. British saxophonist Tim Garland does some terrific work on soprano as Chick and Feraud egg him on. A Corea number like this would not be complete without a guitarist. Charles Altura, a name that is new to me does some impressive work here. “Portals to Forever” is an overt nod to RTF with Corea taking us on a 16 minute tour of the group’s signature styles both electric and acoustic. “Royalty” is a tribute to the great Mr. Haynes, Corea’s “hero, mentor and friend”, whom he met when they both played with Stan Getz in the mid 60’s. It’s a beautiful swinger in three with Corea setting down a relaxed line over which Garland blows a Getz-like tenor and Gilmore steps into his grandfather’s shoes; ably moving the tune forward while keeping impeccable time.

The album’s masterpiece however is “Pledge for Peace”; a seventeen minute tribute to the music and spirit of John Coltrane. This work unfurls in sections, like a symphonic movement. The dissonant intro gives way to an up-tempo mid section with Corea, Gilmore and special guest Stanley Clarke feeding off of each other as if they play together every night. After an epic bass solo by Clarke in the middle, it only seems natural to have a Coltrane tenor solo; and so we get one, from Ravi Coltrane, who seems to have fully come into his own over the last two or three years. His solo is one of his most impressive and fully realized that I’ve ever heard from him. There are still slight elements of his dad’s work in it but more than anything else I felt that this was his own style. Ravi may never be able to fully escape his father’s formidable shadow but he has finally carved out his own space. It’s an amazing track.

The core group that plays with Chick Corea on The Vigil is part of a new band that he has put together. That’s very good news. It’s also good news that he has written some very compelling music for this album. Because what it tells me is that we can expect a lot more great performances from a legend who is not going to be content to rest on his laurels.

Album Review: Anthony Branker – Uppity

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , on September 17, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the Septemeber 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine.

Anthony Branker & Word Play

Anthony Branker

UPPITY – Origin Records 82635  Let’s Conversate; Dance Like No One is Watching; Three Gifts (from a Nigerian Mother to God); Across the Divide; Uppity; Ballad for Trayvon Martin

PERSONNEL: Ralph Bowen, tenor saxophone; Andy Hunter, trombone, keyboards; Eli Asher, trumpet, flugelhorn; Jim Ridl, piano, Fender Rhodes; Kenny Davis, acoustic bass, electric bass; Donald Edwards, drums; Charmaine Lee, vocals; Anthony Branker, composer, musical director

By Curtis Davenport

With a large percentage of jazz musicians being African-American, racial justice has long been a point of contention and frustration for them (us). This frustration has manifested itself in different ways. Many in the 50’s and 60’s aligned themselves with religious groups such as the Nation of Islam, which preached black self-reliance and encouraged members to discard their “slave names” in favor of names that they felt were closer to their original selves. Others left the U.S. altogether and moved to Europe, where they believed the sting of prejudice to be less prevalent. Others remained and turned their frustration into musical expression; albums such as Max Roach’s We Insist! were part of a subgenre that continued to thrive through the 60’s into the 70’s. Though individual compositions dealing with racism and social justice continued to crop up in certain situations (Branford Marsalis’ “Breakfast @ Denny’s” comes to mind), the jazz social protest album had become pretty much a thing of the past.

Recent well publicized events have begun to awaken the sleeping giant; from decisions by the Supreme Court, to controversial decisions by juries in high-profile racially charged cases.  President Obama even recently commented on his experiences with being profiled.  Jazz musicians do not live in a vacuum. Many are all too personally and painfully aware of the scourge of racism and they express their feelings about it, musically.  Dr. Anthony Branker, chairman of the Jazz department at Princeton University has recently created a beautiful and eloquent musical statement about his frustrations, titled Uppity.

Dr. Branker began his career as a trumpeter, including a stint with the Spirit of Life Ensemble, which enjoyed a lengthy stint as the Monday night band at the legendary NYC jazz club, Sweet Basil. His interest in jazz education led Branker to Hunter College and subsequently to Princeton, where he helped to build the ivy-league school’s moribund jazz program. Around 1999, medical problems stemming from a brain aneurysm led him to put down his trumpet and concentrate on composing, arranging and conducting. Dr. Branker has founded two collectives at Princeton, one called Ascent and the other Word Play, each of which has made several previous recordings. It is Word Play that joins him on Uppity, featuring a few well-known NYC jazz musicians such as Ralph Bowen on tenor, Jim Ridl on piano and Donald Edwards on drums. Dr. Branker chose the album title as an acknowledgement of the word that is often used to describe blacks who “don’t know their place” in society as some view it. He cites several high-profile cases where recently young black men who were thought by others not to belong in certain places, paid with their lives for other’s assumptions. And each of the album’s six compositions has something to do with some of these circumstances.

This is not to say that Uppity is a totally dark or angry album. There are joyous moments as well, such as “Let’s Conversate”, a piece of jazz infused with a bit of funk, all riding on Ridl’s skittishly joyous Fender Rhodes, Kenny Davis’ popping electric bass and a sax/’bone duel between Bowen and Andy Hunter. “Dance Like No One is Watching” is in that same vein. “Three Gifts (from a Nigerian Mother to God)” is based on the heartbreaking story of a mother who lost her three children as they returned home from school during a 2005 plane crash. It’s stunningly beautiful music, with a mournful flugelhorn solo by Eli Asher with counterpoint by Bowen and a softly mournful vocal line by Charmaine Lee going on underneath. You will feel the tug at your heartstrings. “Across the Divide” is a plea for us all to take the first step in bridging the gap of understanding. The African rhythms that drive the piece give it a “world music” tinge. The title track, is the most dissonant number on the album, announcing itself with the horns wailing and Edwards bashing out his frustration on the drums. You can almost hear the epithets being hurled. Things settle down a bit in the middle as if there’s an attempt to reach détente with Ridl’s piano acting as mediator. The “peace talks” fall apart and we return to the shouting horns at the end, now joined by Ridl as the frustrated mediator. “Ballad for Trayvon Martin”, written obviously in honor of the Florida teen who went out for snacks last year and somehow ended up dead, closes the album. It is lushly orchestrated with two lengthy and beautiful tenor solos by Mr. Bowen telling the story, in some of his finest recorded work. These solos are broken up by Mr. Ridl’s piano statement which is also quite good.

Anthony Branker’s Uppity is thought-provoking jazz that is still quite accessible for most listeners.  I pray that one day it won’t be necessary for artists to write music about such situations but as long as they do, I also hope that they continue to express themselves so powerfully.

Album Review: Warren Wolf – Wolfgang

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , on September 9, 2013 by curtjazz

THe following review first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Warren Wolf

warren wolf

WOLFGANG – Mack Avenue Records MAC 1077  Sunrise; Frankie and Johnny; Grand Central; Wolfgang; Annoyance; Lake Nerraw Flow; Things Were Done Yesterday; Setembro; Le Carnaval de Venise

PERSONNEL: Warren Wolf, vibes, marimba; Benny Green, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Kris Funn, bass; Billy Williams, Jr., drums; Aaron Diehl, piano; Darryl Tookes, vocals

By Curtis Davenport

It seems that Warren Wolf appeared out of nowhere a couple of years ago and immediately became the hottest young vibraphonist in jazz. In addition to his work as a leader he is a member of Christian McBride’s terrific quintet, Inside Straight. He also plays with pianist Aaron Diehl who has grabbed a lot of attention with his debut album; and he recently took over the vibes chair in the SF Jazz Collective, following in the formidable footsteps of Stefon Harris and Bobby Hutcherson.  Though he also is proficient on drums and piano, Mr. Wolf has done most of his recording on the vibes, with Wolfgang being his second album for Mack Avenue and sixth overall. I found his eponymous prior Mack Avenue release to be promising but uneven. On Wolfgang, those rough spots have been filed away, leaving an artistic statement that is strong, cohesive and musically diverse.

Wolf employs two different groups on this album, each one helping to push his sound in a different direction.  The first features a younger generation of musicians – pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Kris Funn and drummer Billy Williams, Jr. The second trio is comprised of better known veterans, Mr. McBride on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and pianist Benny Green. The younger cats employ a lighter touch which fit nicely with Wolf originals such as “Sunrise”, a sprightly waltz tempoed number that gives Wolf plenty of room to stretch out and display his virtuosity. McBride’s influence (and bass) is all over the three tracks anchored by the veteran trio. The tempos are more defined and the sound is decidedly more soulful. On “Frankie & Johnny” they pay an obvious tribute to the version of this tune that was performed by Ray Brown and Milt Jackson on their late ‘60’s live album That’s the Way It Is. Wolf and company kick off with a repeat of the unforgettably nasty bass and low-end piano vamp that Brown and Monty Alexander patented on the original. McBride even repeats Brown’s shout of “yeah” at just the right moment. Wolf then jumps in, swinging like “Bags” and they are off to the races. If you aren’t at least bobbing your head by the end of this one, check your pulse. “Grand Central” featuring the “youngsters”, is a hard-driving post-bop exploration, with Wolf spraying line after line over Goldberg’s block chords, building the tension until it explodes into a joyous 4/4 sprint. “Things Were Done Yesterday” sounds like an outtake from one of the Inside Straight albums, with its extremely catchy melody line, Mc Bride’s bass almost forcing your fingers to snap and Benny Green showing his Bobby Timmons influence on his piano solo.

Most striking are the two selections performed as duets with Mr. Diehl. Like Diehl, Wolf cut his teeth on classical music and has a great appreciation for the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other classical composers, in addition to a love of jazz. Together they display this love and their striking technical proficiency on the title track, an obvious nod to Amadeus, in name as well as style. Through most of the album, Wolf sounds a little like the post MJQ Milt Jackson. Here, it is Jackson and John Lewis and absolutely beautiful.

Wolfgang is the most mature album of Warren Wolf’s brief career. His growth as a musician, composer and arranger are all evident from first note to last. Wolf is someone to keep your eyes on, as his future looks extremely bright.

Album Review: Etienne Charles – Creole Soul

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , on September 6, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Etienne Charles

etienne charles

CREOLE SOUL – Culture Shock Music EC004  Creole (intro); Creole; The Folks; You Don’t Love Me; Roots; Memories; Green Chimneys; Turn Your Lights Down Low; Midnight; Close Your Eyes; Doin’ The Thing

PERSONNEL: Etienne Charles, trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion; Brian Hogans, alto saxophone; Obed  Calvaire, drums; Jacques Schwarz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Kris Bowers, piano, fender rhodes;  Ben Williams, bass; Erol Josué, vocals; Daniel Sadownick, percussion, vocals; D’Achee, percussion, vocals; Alex Wintz, guitar

By Curtis Davenport

One of the reasons that jazz is struggling with the public lately, is a lack of fresh voices. Whether it’s intentional or not, so many artists have a sound that is extremely derivative of someone who came before them. We who write about the music often aren’t much help as we rush to crown “the next Miles”, “the next Hubbard”, “the next Wynton”. So when I hear someone who doesn’t sound like everyone else, I sit up and take notice. Etienne Charles, a 30 year-old trumpet player, originally from Trinidad, has caught my attention.

What differentiates Mr. Charles from some of his contemporaries is his use of rhythm. This is not something that has happened overnight, at least on his recordings. This is Charles fourth album.  In the same way that Robert Glasper has evolved into what is now his signature sound; Mr. Charles developed what we hear on Creole Soul over the course of his previous discs.  A graduate of Julliard and of Florida State University where he was mentored by pianist Marcus Roberts, Mr. Charles not surprisingly, evinced no small amount of Marsalis family influence in his early work. That is, much of it was rooted in the hard-driving post bop of the ‘60’s. The music was well-played and demonstrated Mr. Charles considerable prowess on his instrument but it did get lost in the straight-ahead shuffle. But there were always these moments on Culture Shock, Folklore and Kaiso, where Charles would delve deeply into the music of his Caribbean roots. I found those to be the most interesting tracks on those albums. On this new album Etienne Charles takes the next step and he has created a sound that while still firmly rooted in jazz, is also deeply infused with the music of Trinidad, Martinique, New Orleans and a few other stops in between.

You know that you’re in for something different from the opening track “Creole”, which features a brief introduction by voodoo priest Erol Josué delivering a chant in the Haitian Creole language, Kweyol. The main part of track then jumps off, riding on Alex Wintz’s guitar lines and a driving kongo groove. Charles then joins in with a trumpet statement that is equal parts rhythmic and majestic. Brian Hogans picks up the same line on the alto sax and takes it to the next level. Then Kris Bowers’ Fender Rhodes settles the proceedings just enough to keep them from boiling over too quickly. All the while Josué’s vocals, Wintz’s guitar and the beat keep are making the song captivating and refreshingly different. “The Folks”, is a soulful groove, mellower than the opener but still memorable, due again to Mr. Charles’ trumpet, Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s tenor and Bowers’ burbling Rhodes, which quietly sets the background throughout much of the album. Then there’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No), a Bo Diddley tune that became a rocksteady hit in the ‘60’s. Charles keeps the infectious beat, adds a full horn line and gives this tune perhaps its third life. I could easily see a hip club DJ throwing it in the mix, even though it is still very much a jazz tune. Mr. Charles also has roots in Martinique, which he pays tribute to on “Roots” an up-tempo jazz tune with a touch of the bel-air beat that Martinique is known for and a vocal chant break in the middle. Also among the cover tunes is Monk’s “Green Chimneys” imagined here with a very subtle calypso beat which sounds very interesting against Bowers dancing piano chords. And Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” interpreted as reggae-jazz, with Charles soothing flugelhorn leading the way.

Creole Soul is a rousing success because Etienne Charles doesn’t try to force the marriage of jazz and other musical genres. He lets it happen naturally, employing other young musicians who are completely on board with his vision. They have created something that is different and exciting. Creole Soul is jazz that takes the two words of its title seriously and that’s what makes it distinctive.

Album Review – Michel Camilo – What’s Up?

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , on August 15, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Michel Camilo

Michel Camilo - What's Up?

WHAT’S UP? – OKeh Records 88883703992 What’s Up?; A Place in Time; Take Five; Sandra’s Serenade; Island Beat; Alone Together; Paprika; Love For Sale; Chan Chan; On Fire; At Dawn

PERSONNEL: Michel Camilo, piano

By Curtis Davenport

The biggest surprise to me when I began researching to review this disc was that I discovered that this is only Michel Camilo’s second solo piano album. I had assumed that someone with Mr. Camilo’s technical prowess would have gone solo a few more times over the course of his 25-plus year career. But in fact, What’s Up? is number two, the other being 2005’s appropriately titled, Solo. Solo, though technically striking, was perhaps overly reverential and introspective; so much so that parts of the album took on a certain sameness. The same cannot be said of What’s Up? which crackles with percussive energy and invention from beginning to end.

The Dominican pianist is determined to show all sides of his musical personality on this album from Latin to Bop to Classical with many stops in between. Though he is known mostly for his trio work, he seems a bit freer in this setting. The fact that there is no bassist to clash with has loosed him to do more creative things with his left hand and much of it is very impressive.

The album kicks off with a bit of a surprise – the title track, a lively boogie-woogie/stride tune written by Mr. Camilo. His left is rock solid, the melody is infectious and he sounds right at home in this idiom. Equally exciting is his version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”, which he plays straight and very impressively, keeping that timeless 5/4 rhythm while flowing with loads of creative ideas from his right hand. The quasi-classical “A Place in Time” is just begging to be scored for strings, I can hear in my mind an orchestra caressing the quiet passages and exploding on the crescendos. As beautiful as that composition is, the best moments on the album come when Mr. Camilo gets to show off his rhythmic prowess, whether it’s an original or a cover. “Island Beat” is more Cuba than Jamaica with Camilo managing to make us feel the missing timbales. “Alone Together” manages to be grandiose and intimately bluesy all at once. “Paprika” is a powerful joy with rumbling left hand voicings that virtually leap from the piano. He takes “Love for Sale” to places that it has probably never been, with knotty, shifting time signatures and once again, stunning left hand work.

Then there’s “Chan Chan”, originally composed and performed by the incomparable Cuban guitarist/vocalist Compay Segundo and made famous by its appearance in the film Buena Vista Social Club. It’s a stunningly beautiful song to begin with and Camilo treats it with the grandeur that it deserves, starting subtly and letting the performance grow in power, chorus after chorus, while pulling jazz elements that the song didn’t have before, in with his right hand improvisations. It’s a towering performance that improves on an already great composition. The album comes to a fitting conclusion with the evocative “At Dawn”, which features Camilo at his most lyrical.

I’m usually not a fan of solo piano but Michel Camilo’s work on What’s Up? has made me reconsider. As much as I enjoy his duo and trio work, I would relish hearing more solo piano from him if it continues to be of this caliber.

Album Review: Wayne Wallace – Latin Jazz/Jazz Latin

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , on August 12, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet

Wayne Wallace

LATIN JAZZ – JAZZ LATIN – Patois Records PRCD014  ¡A Ti Te Gusta!; Things Ain’t What They Used to Be; ¡Estamos Aqui!; Giant Steps; La Habana; I Mean You; Prelude to a Kiss; Melambo; Puertas y Caminos; Pasando El Tiempo

PERSONNEL: Wayne Wallace, trombone; Murray Low, piano; David Belove, bass; Colin Douglas, trap drums; Michael Spiro, percussion; John Worley, trumpet; Masura Koga, tenor saxophone; Mary Fettig, flute; Elena Pinderhughes, flute; Jeremy Cohen, violin; Tregar Otton, violin; Mads Tolling, violin; Pete Escovedo, timbales; John Santos, vocals; Orlando Torriente, vocals; Jesus Díaz, vocals; Mike Mixtacki, vocals

By Curtis Davenport

“Latin Jazz” is a term that has become extremely overused. You’ll find it slapped on virtually every style of instrumental music that employs even a hint of Latin Rhythms, which makes for a great deal of marketplace confusion. It’s no wonder that Mario Bauzá, the celebrated Cuban composer and bandleader would bristle when the term was applied to his art, insisting that it be called “Afro-Cuban Music” instead.

In my opinion, there are a scant few musicians working today who are able to fuse great jazz improvisation with great Afro-Cuban/Latin Rhythms the way that Bauzá, Machito, Puente, Tjader and Dizzy did. Those who can do it successfully are the ones who have earned the right to have their music called “Latin Jazz” or “Afro-Cuban Music”.  San Francisco based trombonist Wayne Wallace had the cojones to call his latest album Latin Jazz – Jazz Latin. That’s okay, because Wallace has the musical talent to back it up.

Though he is relatively unknown in the East, Wallace is one of the most important names in Latin Jazz in the Bay Area. He has released a string of Latin Jazz discs over the last few years that have been consistently first-rate, including To Hear From There, ¡Bien Bien!, and Infinity. What sets his work apart from many of his contemporaries is that there is always something new and fresh in Wallace’s arrangements, making each disc a kind of concept album.

On Latin Jazz-Jazz Latin, Wallace makes liberal use of a trio of violinists, not just as background “sweeteners” but as frontline part of the arrangement usually doubling a pair of flutes. The resulting sound caught my ear immediately on the album opener “¡A Ti Te Gusta!” a terrific descarga that leaves plenty of solo room for violinist Mads Tolling, flutist Elena Pinderhughes and Mr. Wallace. When was the last time you heard a “horn section” of flute, violin and trombone? They manage to pull it off quite effectively, as pianist Murray Low keeps the clave rolling under them. “¡Estamos Aqui!” a songo that features counterpoint between the string trio and a trombone choir is another winner; it will stimulate your feet as well as your mind, especially when vocalists Mike Mixtacki and Jesus Diaz join in. Speaking of the trombone choir, they really get a chance to shine on “La Habana” a cool mid-tempo cha-cha/danzon that also features a guest spot from Pete Escovedo on timbales. There are shades of the great Barry Rogers all over this piece and Murray Low once again has a brief but memorable solo. Mr. Low is new to me but I have to point out that he is marvelous throughout this disc.

The four cover tunes are all effective, which is a feat in itself. Often when Latin artists cover a jazz tune, the results end up a bit messy as the rhythm clashes with any attempt to maintain the integrity of the original music. I never felt that strain in this session; a tribute to the creative arranging.  Best of these is “I Mean You”, the Monk tune which is turned into a very effective bomba, with Wallace showing off his trombone prowess to great effect. “Giant Steps”, which I’ve heard some well-known Latin groups fall flat on, thrives in a mix of merengue and Afro-Cuban beats in 12/8 time. There are nice solo spots by Wallace and trumpeter John Worley but who really steals the show here is Masaru Koga, who sets an already hot performance on fire with his gritty tenor sax solo. I’d never heard Mr. Koga before this performance. I’ve got some homework to do.

Latin Jazz-Jazz Latin is another strong album from Wayne Wallace. I think that Mario Bauzá would be pleased.

Album Review: George Duke – DreamWeaver

Posted in CD Reviews, In Memoriam with tags , , on August 6, 2013 by curtjazz

This review appears in the August 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s JazzInside Magazine.

Though I knew of his wife’s passing, I had no idea that Mr. Duke was also very ill. Therefore his passing came as a great shock. I’m posting this review exactly as I originally wrote it, as a tribute to an incredibly creative and influential musician.  Rest In Peace, George Duke.

George Duke

george duke

DREAMWEAVER – Heads Up Records HUI-34170-02  Dreamweaver; Stones of Orion; Trippin’; Ashtray; Missing You; Transition 1; Change The World; Jazzmatazz; Round The Way Girl; Transition 2; Brown Sneakers; You Never Know; Ball and Chain; Burnt Sausage Jam; Happy Trails

PERSONNEL: George Duke, piano, Rhodes, synths, drum programming, arp odyssey, mini moog, Wurlitzer electric piano, castlebar clavinet, vocals; Stanley Clarke, upright bass; Gorden Campbell, drums; Daniel Higgins, tenor sax, flute; Everette Harp, alto sax; Kamasi Washington, tenor sax; Gary Grant, trumpet; Michael Patches Stewart, trumpet; Terry Dexter, background vocals; Shannon Pearson, background vocals; Lamont VanHook, background vocals; Rashid Duke, Ahoom; Erik Zobler, Ahoom; Paul Jackson, Jr., guitar; Chris Clarke, words and thangs; Rose Geddes, lady with a question; Rachelle Ferrell, vocals; Jef Lee Johnson, guitar; Larry Kimpel, bass; Jim Gilstrap, background vocals; Lalah Hathaway, vocals; Jeffrey Osborne, vocals; Lori Perry, vocals; BeBeWinans, vocals; Freddie Jackson, vocals; Dira Sugandi, vocals; Terry Dexter, vocals; Howard Hewett, vocals; Kennedy Fuselier, kid vocals; Josie James, background vocals; Michael Landau, guitar; Chill, rap; Ramon Flores, trumpet solo; Allen Kaplan, trombone; Lisa Chamblee-Hampton, round the way girl; Lenny Castro, percussion; Michael Manson, bass; Teena Marie, vocals; John Roberts, drums; Christian McBride, bass

By Curtis Davenport

The human spirit is a funny thing; when we are feeling our greatest pain, is often when we rise to the occasion and deliver greatness. We often feel that kind of pain when we lose a loved one. Legendary keyboardist George Duke’s wife of 40 years, Corine, passed away in 2012 after a long battle with cancer. For quite a while Mr. Duke, a renowned workaholic, was understandably devastated. He did not write or perform any music, something he had often sought solace in, in times of trouble. Then, while attending a music cruise and listening some of his colleagues play for the first few days, the inspiration returned. Duke began to write while still at sea and began to record when he returned to his studio. The result is DreamWeaver, an R & B and Funk driven Contemporary Jazz album, which is the best thing that I’ve heard from Duke at least a decade.

Duke cut his musical teeth in the bands of Frank Zappa and Cannonball Adderley and Jean-Luc Ponty, in addition to his chart topping work with bassist Stanley Clarke in the eighties. I say that to remind everyone that eclecticism has been Mr. Duke’s calling card throughout his five decade career. And DreamWeaver touches on most of Duke’s musical stops. The best news is that each one of these is invariably satisfying.  The album was recorded over multiple sessions, which allowed Duke to bring on board an all-star lineup of guests; Mr. Clarke, Christian McBride, Everette Harp, Rachelle Ferrell, Paul Jackson, Jr., Jeffrey Osborne and Lalah Hathaway are among the “big names” that appear on various tracks. There are also two other guests who make contributions that turn out now to be extremely poignant; more on them in a moment.

Though there are a couple of obvious and very moving tributes to his late wife here (“Missing You” which features Ms. Ferrell as a wordless vocal counterpart to Mr. Duke’s lead and “Happy Trails”, the old Roy Rogers sign-off, turned into a laid back piece of jazz-funk), don’t think that DreamWeaver is some kind of sad jazz requiem. There are many tracks that will get your head nodding, your toes tapping and put a smile on your face as you reach for the “repeat” button.  There’s “Stones of Orion”, a nice piece of straight ahead jazz, with a touch of R & B; Duke’s piano and Clarke’s bass shine.  “Trippin’” is a nice autobiographical slice of modern soul. “Ashtray” is hard driving funk out of the Bootsy Collins school. “Change The World” is a “We are The World” style call for social change, complete with an all-star choir of vocalists. “You Never Know” is a nice laid back Latin groove with Duke’s falsetto singing about the impermanence of life. And “Burnt Sausage Jam” is a loose 15 minute improvisation, with Duke, McBride and many others clearly having a ball as they groove through multiple musical styles.

Then there’s the appearance on many of the tracks of Jef Lee Johnson, the Philly based guitar wizard who was a longtime musical partner of Duke’s. Johnson died suddenly last January, not too long after the sessions for this album were completed. He is a strong presence throughout.  And there’s the unforgettable appearance on “Ball and Chain” of Teena Marie.  At the time of her death in December 2010, Ms. Marie and Mr. Duke had just begun work on Ms. Marie’s long-discussed jazz album. The vocals for “Ball and Chain” were some of the only things completed. After her death, Mr. Duke offered the track to Marie’s estate for release on her posthumous album Beautiful. They declined but gave Duke permission to complete the track, which appears on DreamWeaver. Ms. Marie sounds wonderful and the entire track is first-rate, rivaling “Tune in Tomorrow” and “Casanova Brown”, two of the jazzier tracks on Ms. Marie’s classic R & B albums.  Thinking of what this album might have been caused a lump in my throat.

Though the circumstances surrounding its creation were less than ideal, George Duke has created a musical gem in DreamWeaver. We hope that his creativity continues for many more years.

Album Review: Derrick Hodge – Live Today

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2013, CD Reviews with tags , , , on August 3, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Derrick Hodge

derrick hodge - live today

LIVE TODAY – Blue Note Records B 001847702  The Real; Table Jawn; Message of Hope; Boro March; Live Today; Dances With Ancestors; Anthem in 7; Still The One; Holding Onto You; Solitude; Rubberband; Gritty Folk; Doxology (I Remember)

PERSONNEL: Derrick Hodge, acoustic and electric bass, keyboards, percussion, table beats, synthesizers, lead bass distortion, fretless bass, synth bass, vocals; Common, vocals; Chris Dave, drums, percussion, table beats; James Poyser, keyboards; Travis Sayles, synthesizers, keyboards, Hammond B3 Organ; Jahi Sundance, turntables; Keyon Harrold, trumpets, flugelhorn; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Corey King, trombone; Robert Glasper, keyboards, acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, table beats; Mark Colenburg, drums, percussion, snare drums, quads; Aaron Parks, acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes; Casey Benjamin, vocoder; Alan Hampton, vocals, acoustic guitar; Martha Caplin, violin; Sophia Kessinger, violin; Sarah Adams, viola; Mark Shuman, cello;

By Curtis Davenport

If jazz has a future, then this is it.

Though many of my generation and older may not like to hear that and some will even almost fight to the death to deny it, let’s face facts.  Young cats like Robert Glasper, Marcus Strickland, Derrick Hodge, Keyon Harrold and their contemporaries are playing music today that is influenced as much by hip-hop as it is by bebop; which is not a bad thing.  They didn’t grow up with the Great American Songbook in their ears so why do so many “jazz people” get apoplectic when these young guys play to their influences? Granted, early marriages of jazz and hip-hop were often clumsy and downright awful, but these guys and others have learned from the earlier mistakes and refined these stylistic mergers into something that is new, fresh and respectful of all of their musical influences. And most important, it works. The sound is compelling and exciting.  Hip young people are beginning to listen and even a few “old heads” such as this writer have come around. This is the sound of “Real Jazz” in the 21st Century.

Bassist Derrick Hodge is known mostly for his work as a member of Robert Glasper’s forward-looking group. He was a major contributor to Glasper’s 2012 breakthrough album Black Radio.  However, he has worked across multiple genres over the last decade supporting a wide range of artists from Gretchen Parlato and Mulgrew Miller to rapper Common and gospel singer Marvin Sapp. Live Today is his debut as a leader. Though it is cut from much of the same cloth as Glasper’s album, Hodge doesn’t have as many big name guest stars and he eschews cover versions of familiar pop tunes. What he does have are songs and arrangements that are complex, challenging and fresh.

The direction of this album is announced right away on “The Real”, a busy amalgam of horn blasts, synthesizers, turntable scratches and sampled voices making statements all held together by Hodges powerful bassline. It’s as close as I’ve heard to nailing the essence what those seeking the hip-hop jazz fusion have probably been looking for. Things really kick into high gear a few songs later on the title track. Glasper opens it by sounding a subtle “alarm” with a repeated piano figure. He is then joined by guest star Common, whose tone here summoned memories of the late Gil Scott-Heron in his prime. The track is spare, only Glasper, Hodge and drummer Chris Dave back Common; yet it feels remarkably dense, as Common coolly brings forth rhyme after rhyme. I could easily listen to a whole album of these cats flowing like that. The great vibe continues with the next track “Dances with Ancestors”, which features Harrold’s muted trumpet and Hodge on both acoustic and electric bass, while Aaron Parks on piano and Travis Sayles on the B3 play off of each other as they improvise the background. It’s mysteriously beautiful. “Anthem in 7” allows the leader to come to the forefront and remind us that he is one of the best young bassists around as he riffs over the complex time signature. On “Solitude” Parks and Hodge trade intricate solo statements, backed by a lush string quartet; the presence of Parks and Glasper throughout the album helps Hodge to put all aspects of his musical personality on display. The disc closes with a nice bow to Mr. Hodge’s upbringing in the church, “Doxology (I Remember)”, anyone with a similar background (such as this writer) will feel a smile of homecoming creep over their face as Hodge bows the familiar theme (“Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow…”) followed by Sayles organ. It’s a fitting end to this fine effort.

According to Hodge’s recent statements, he did not enter the studio with intricate parts written out for each musician. The compositions were purposefully left in a basic sketch state so that arrangements would occur organically; thus the title of the album. Miles Davis famously employed a similar strategy over fifty years ago on the sessions that created Kind of Blue. We all know now the influence that that album had on jazz. I’m not saying that Live Today will be as memorable in the long run but it’s certainly bold enough to inspire other young musicians who will follow.