Archive for jazz 2017

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.

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: 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