Archive for CD Reviews

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.

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