Jung on Jazz March 1999
In the Key of Monk
Jessica Williams cites Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Paul Chambers, and Johnny Griffin as her main influences. The only piano player she credits is Thelonious Monk. The significance of this is that Williams seems to have her very own, distinct style and her unique voice is what makes her, along with Kenny Barron, Paul Bley, Horace Tapscott, and Marilyn Crispell, one of the finest pianists of their generation. In the Key of Monk, Williams’s tenth release on the Canadian Jazz Focus label is a solo piano performance recorded live on May 31, 1997 at Calgary’s Steinway Concert Hall.
Williams’s treatment of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is exquisite. She deconstructs the standard with dynamic flourishes from her right hand while laying down the bass line with her left. Williams states “Reflections” with amazing grace, probing the Monk melody with a cultivated sensitivity that only enhances the music. Williams contours the heart of “Ask Me Now,” by indulging with sublime punctuation and precise quotes that maintain the integrity of the composition.
Monk’s music is Williams’s true north and In the Key of Monk is Williams’s finest hour. What’s more impressive is that her releases are all better than 99% of what’s already out there. Brava.
– TOP –DAVE PIKE
Ask Bobby Hutcherson who his influences are and one of the first names he would mention is Dave Pike. Dave Pike? Yes, Dave Pike, and it’s not dumb luck that finds Pike back on the scene. Much as the chess legend Bobby Fischer is presumed to be out of the public eye, honing his skills to even greater strengths, so too was Pike, who returns in gala fashion with Bophead. The Ubiquity Jazz release is a fitting welcome back for the vibraphonist, who is a major voice that is finally being heard once more. Joining Pike for this SoCal celebration is guitarist wizard Anthony Wilson, bassist Richard Simon, pianists Milcho Leviev and Jane Getz (for four tracks), drummers Lorca Hart and Albert “Tootie” Heath (for four tracks), and tenor saxophone legend, Teddy Edwards (for two tracks).
“A Time For Love” is a good example of why Pike is what’s hip with jazz vibes. Pike’s rhythmic prowess is proficient in the uptempo numbers, but the vibraphonist also displays his charming sense of romance for the slower grooves. Better have the rewind button handy for “Dr. Jackle” because the sonic flurries, that are abound, come so fast and so furiously, many may miss more than merely a note or two. Wilson and Getz stand out on an impressionable “Ghost of a Chance.” Wilson’s soft-toned guitar agrees with Getz’s pleasing statements.
Bophead may become the defining record for Ubiquity Jazz. Credit should go to Michael McFadin and all those at Ubiquity for not taking a gamble, but making an investment in Pike. He’s a blue chipper.
– TOP –MASADA
(DIW) Alto saxophonist John Zorn founded Masada in 1993. Combining klezmer music with jazz, Masada grew an underground cult following and was the eventual launching pad for trumpeter Dave Douglas’s meteoric rise to fame. Zorn and Douglas, along with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron made five other numbered releases on DIW before Six/Vav and Seven/Zayin.
All five prior volumes were superb and Six/Vav and Seven/Zayin are no different. The music on both Six/Vav and Seven/Zayin is vibrant. Douglas pushes the envelope of improvisation on Seven/Zayin, splattering phrases all over “Shevet.” Zorn’s melodic looseness a la Ornette Coleman makes for an open-ended “Nevuah.” Douglas’s slurs and trills on “Tekufah,” to the beat of a metronome-like Baron make room for the squawking Zorn.
Six/Vav is also not bound by song structure or fixed changes and the musicians exploit that, freely bouncing off one another. Both Zorn and Douglas fly around with abandon on the opener “Debir” and that uninhibited spontaneity continues throughout the recording, all the way to the closing “Beer Sheba.”
Masada disbanded two years ago, but their discography on DIW alone is a heavy legacy. All of the DIW numbered series from Zorn’s Masada is a must for all avant-gardists. These kicking DIW titles are the kinds of exports from Japan that is throwing our trade balance off with them.
– TOP –MICHAEL WEISS
Michael Weiss’s resume is pretty impressive. After having done stints with George Coleman, Junior Cook, Charles McPherson, Gary Bartz, and Johnny Griffin, the 40-year-old pianist knows good saxophonists. So it is no small fluke that he picked the young lion, tenorman Eric Alexander to play on his new quartet recording on DIW, “Power Station.” The pair hooked up with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth for one heck of a ride.
Weiss and Alexander cut loose all over this recording. Weiss’s melodic inventiveness on a swinging “Power Station,” brisk “Atlantis,” and a barn burner “Orient Express” is mind numbing. Alexander negotiates the difficult changes with relative ease. But it is their ballad work on the album that shines brightest. Backed strongly by Webber and Farnsworth, Weiss and Alexander glide through “Alone Together” on melodic wings.
The foursome put it all on the line and the results make for a rewarding listen.
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DAVE BINNEY, DONNY MCCASLIN, SCOTT COLLEY, JEFF HIRSHFIELD
It seems the line between what some traditionalist circles considers what is and isn’t jazz is getting smaller and smaller. If the music isn’t swinging, or a variation on a theme from Ellington, or based upon a familiar theme, it is practically ostracized. It is in this kind of an environment where a Lan Xang may slip through the cracks. And what a shame that would be, for Lan Xang is something else. A quartet project fronted by saxophone virtuoso Dave Binney, Lan Xang’s cast is rounded out by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield.
Lan Xang runs the gamut of advanced jazz music, from the ebb and flow of “Day of Fear, Night of Truth” with McCaslin’s bitter tone offering a deep contrast to the multidimensional Binney, to the funkier “2nd Line Sally” with Hirshfield’s restrained, level headed drumming keeping the players together. Then there’s the ritualistic “Bob Dole/Blee Bop Ba Blay” and the demanding “Grunge Factor,” all strong efforts in modern American music.
The dark beauty of Lan Xang captures the provocative essence that jazz music should have in order to be stimulating in the new millennium. Binney leads this group that is advancing the music forward and should not be dismissed. Lan Xang is available by contacting Mythology Records at email@example.com or by calling 1-888-684-2968.
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It’s funny how the media tends to gravitate towards the shortcomings of an individual to determine his or her legacy. William Jefferson Clinton sat in the Oval Office during one of the most prosperous periods in American history, yet he’ll probably only be remembered for staining an intern’s blue dress. Eric Alexander, who has been developing into one of the leading tenor voices of his generation, will probably never live down his second place finish to Joshua Redman in the ’91 Thelonious Monk Competition. That’s a shame. It’s a shame because on virtually every level now, Alexander is a better player than Redman. And although Redman is the media darling and easily the most overly publicized musician other than Wynton Marsalis, Alexander could blow him off any stage. Mode For Mabes is a perfect example of Alexander’s blowing chops. Alexander’s sextet employs trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist John Webber, and drummer George Fludas.
From the outset, Alexander demands the listener’s undivided attention, fencing with Fludas in a spellbinding battle of wits on “Mode For Mabes,” before Rotondi takes over with a dynamic trumpet solo. Alexander keeps the faculty streamlined and together they produce entertaining music. Alexander’s gorgeous tone stands out as he strolls on a romantic “For Heaven’s Sake.” The tenor saxophonist’s confidence is in full bloom as he handles his way through the composition with remarkable poise. The album climaxes for Coltrane’s “Naima,” a tenor showcase for Alexander, who explores the mids and highs, adding in a colorful honk or two along the way. The tenorman quarterbacks the ensemble to a rousing finish line.
After listening to Mode For Mabes, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Alexander has got plenty of game. The most frightening thing is that Alexander is only going to get better.
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For almost a decade, from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, Bobby Hutcherson could have been called Mr. Blue Note, recording over two dozen albums for the Alfred Lion label, both as a leader and as a sideman, most notably on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. But for the next two decades that followed, the vibraphonist only recorded sporadically for Columbia, Evidence, and Landmark. It seemed Hutcherson would be another in a long list of musicians to get lost in the shuffle. Not Hutcherson, who has started back on the road to recapturing the jazz world as the vibraphonist of the moment as he was during his Blue Note hey days with his first recording in half a decade, Skyline. Skyline is Hutcherson’s debut for Verve and features Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Geri Allen on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Al Foster on drums.
The uptempo “Pomponio” begins with Hutcherson generating rhythmic intensity alongside a red hot Foster. Fueled by the pair, Garrett swings hard, playing a series of jarring passages. The mood slows for a dreamy “Tres Palabras.” McBride is out front for much of the introduction, plucking thoughtful, probing bass lines. Garrett’s contoured, lyrical phrases counter the textured malleting of Hutcherson. Hutcherson really lets loose for “The Coaster,” a buoyant run that is spurred on by the vibist’s eye-opening clusters. Allen’s use of space is a perfect foil to Garrett’s darting alto figures, as the pianist hesitates before carefully placing the perfect notes. Her solo is also something else, proving why she is the finest post-bop pianist to emerge since Jessica Williams.
It looks as though Hutcherson is back. Back to being in the national spotlight, back to swinging, and back to reprising his familiar role as the premier vibraphonist in jazz.
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Going from the Las Vegas strip as a lounge musician to working in New York as a sideman with Wild Bill Davis, Benny Goodman, and Buck Clayton, tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence sure has come a long way. Lawrence revisits the B3 funk from his days with legendary organist Davis with his second album for Fable Records, High Heel Sneakers, an organ combo with guitarist Peter Bernstein, organist Adam Scone, bassists Dennis Irwin and John Webber, drummer Willie Jones III, and congueros Carlos “Potato” Valdes and Eddie Bobe.
Lawrence gets things going with a rousing “The Lamp Is Low.” Bernstein’s gritty guitar progressions lock into the earthy groove presented by a dazzling Scone. They ignite Lawrence, who catches fire, and there is fascinating interplay between the tenorman and Bernstein. “High Heel Sneakers” has the saxophonist digging down for the low-pitched notes and sparkles in the middle ranges. Bernstein’s thoughtful arpeggios go hand in hand with Scone’s panache. An uptempo rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” shows off Lawrence’s full bodied tone. The quintet, already in full stride, keeps the brisk pace going, jamming in aggressive fashion.
Soul Carnival, Lawrence’s debut, was well received upon its release last year. High Heel Sneakers is just as entertaining, giving the tenor saxophonist another first-rate addition to his body of work.
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The organ is making a comeback in jazz. Given prominence by Jimmy Smith and legitimized by Charles Earland, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, and Shirley Scott, the Hammond B3 has been brought back into the jazz limelight by the high profile success of Medeski, Martin, and Wood and young talents like 26-year- old Sam Yahel. Since moving to New York in 1990, Yahel has been a part of the underground Smalls scene. Joining Yahel for his debut Searchin’ are guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Joe Strasser, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander.
Smalls has seasoned Yahel to be a confident player which is evident by his rhythmic stride on “Raining on the Rosebush (a.k.a. Double Rainbow).” Yahel soulfully swings through the Jobim tune as Bernstein’s wistful lines make the guitarist’s presence known. Time stops for the fire and a half minutes of “My Ideal,” a dreamy ballad. From Alexander’s gentle flirtations to Kisor’s juicy lyricism, the quintet shines under the slower tempo. A groovy “Block” rounds out the session with Kisor and Alexander reaching deep into their bag and out- quoting one another while Yahel and Bernstein keep things coasting along in cruise control.
Searchin’ is quite an impressive first effort from these handful of Gen-Xer’s. It seems the future is in pretty good hands. And they said the generation raised on Reaganomics and MTV were a bunch of slackers.
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ODDBAR TRIO PLUS TROMBONE
What will happen to free jazz in the millennium? It will spread like wildfire through the underground with such gold standard labels as Delmark, CIMP, AUM Fidelity, and Vinny Golia’s 9 Winds releasing aggressive, contemporary American music. Lost Art Cafe is a challenging 9 Winds release from Oddbar Trio Plus Trombone, the Oddbar part being trumpeter Brent Sandy, guitarist Steve Grismore, and drummer Jim Dreier and Trombone referring to an adept John Rapson.
“Cletus Ngugu” is colored by Grismore’s eerie guitar notes, Sandy’s spirited playing, and Rapson’s witty slurs. With Grismore providing the bass line for “Suesy Bluesy,” Rapson’s playing never falls below exciting, as the ‘boneman puts on a clinic with some of the most daring, ornery playing on record. Things get down and dirty for “Perpendicular Promenade (Johnny C.’s Superlocrian Lovefest),” as the trio plus one takes the restraints off and lets the sparks fly. Dreier’s tom pops and snare rolls keep the music from lagging.
Maybe the group should be re-titled Trombone Plus Oddbar Trio, because Lost Art Cafe is Rapson’s showcase. Sandy, Grismore, and Dreier are all top-notch players in their own rights, but Rapson seems to be in a whole other realm entirely. Highly recommended for those who keep their feet on the ground. Underground that is.
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Songbook records in jazz are not uncommon. Last year, everyone and their mothers put out a Gershwin tribute commemorating Gershwin’s 100th anniversary. This year probably will not be any different for Duke Ellington’s 100th anniversary. So it is no big shock to find Lester Bowie doing a songbook concept record with his Brass Fantasy. That is until one realizes Bowie’s concept. Bowie takes on tunes made popular by pop artists The Spice Girls, rapper Notorious B. I. G., and industrial rocker Marilyn Manson for his new release The Odyssey Of Funk & Popular Music – Volume 1. The Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy has a cast that includes four trumpeters (Bowie, Joseph Gollehon, Ravi Best, Gerald Brazel), a tuba player (Bob Stewart), a French horn (Vincent Chancey), three trombonists (Luis Bonilla, Joshua Roseman, Gary Valente), a drummer (Vinnie Johnson), and a percussionist (Victor See Yuen).
Popular music is difficult, if not impossible to translate into jazz music. Just ask Bob Belden – remember the Sting rearrangements and the Prince or Artist Formerly Known As fiasco? So to tackle The Spice Girls’s “Two Become One,” Bowie has brass, and in this case, literally. Roseman’s multiphonics does not capture all the “subtleties” of a Ginger Spice, but he carries his own. “In The Still Of The Night” sounds more like a New Orleans marching band playing Dion. Interesting, but by no means groundbreaking. Puccini wrote “Nessun Dorma” as the defining moment in his opera Turandot. Bowie’s “Nessun Dorma” is not going to have Pavarotti unemployed anytime soon, but it does have its merits. The group interplay is very amusing.
The Odyssey Of Funk & Popular Music – Volume 1 is not Bowie’s finest hour, but it is fun and sometimes that’s good enough. In this case it is. Bowie’s Odyssey is Bubbalicious. And to think, there is a Volume 2 on the way.
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What makes Sonny Stitt one of the baddest saxophonists on the planet? Look no further for the answer than his Salt and Pepper (Impulse) album or one of the finest bebop recordings of the modern era, Endgame Brilliance (32 Jazz) which includes his landmark Tune Up! (Muse) and Constellation (Muse) recordings, both recorded in the early ’70s when Stitt was in his prime. The Champ is another one of those ’70s gems from the saxophonist and includes Joe Newman (trumpet), Duke Jordan (piano), Sam Jones (bass), and Roy Brooks (drums).
Check out Stitt’s lyricism on a relaxed reading of “Sweet and Lovely,” as he flirts with Jordan and Jones. Then there’s the uptempo “The Midgets” that features some hell-bent chord progressions from Stitt. Newman plays a mean horn and his “I Got You Babe” type tradeoffs with the saxophonist are quite amusing. Jordan’s commanding piano solo on “Walkin'” inspires some stellar interplay between an intense Stitt and an attentive Jones.
The Champ is yet another release on 32 Jazz that belongs in every bebop collection.
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A quarter of a century has gone by since the Latin jazz superband Irakere formed. In that time, the jazz world has witnessed the dawn of the music video, mourned the passing of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, has seen the Cold War come to an end, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, and the birth of the Anti- Christ, “smooth jazz”. Irakere’s longevity is a testament to their music’s consistency. Much of that credit belongs to one of Irakere’s founding fathers, pianist Chucho Valdes, the greatest Cuban composer of his time. Both Valdes and his compositions are at the forefront of Yemaya, Irakere’s first album for Blue Note that reunites them with Bruce Lundvall, a pivotal player in their excursions in the States.
“Santa Amalia,” one of seven Valdes originals on the release, is a tribute to the composer’s old Havana neighborhood. The vibrant son features alto saxophonist Cesar Lopez and tenor saxophonist Alfredo Thompson, who trade invigorating quotes with one another. Based upon the changes of the bebop warhorse “Love for Sale,” Valdes’s mambo “La Explosion” has an ear-popping trumpet solo and some of the swingingest bravada on record. Valdes begins “Chorrino” by mirroring a classical pianist’s articulation and modulation before adding his own special brand of intensity and creativity, Carlos Del Puerto’s sweeping bass lines, and the driving rhythms of Enrique Pla.
Yemaya is destined to make Irakere the most sought after Cuban export since the Cohiba.
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The duo wail away on the opening “Habla” and like a palm tree, helpless in the eye of an audible hurricane, the music sways to the gale force playing of Magnuson, as the reedman drives up and down the horn, creating a whirlwind of sound. Grassi, who tears a hole in the drumskins of his toms and snare, pounds the beat relentlessly. There is no love on “I’m Over Here, Lover.” The music relaxes a bit in comparison to “Habla,” but never falls below frantic. The listener would need a coffee break just to calm him or herself down. “Subway Ride” is an e-ticket ride to cardiac arrest as the two partners let it rip and the listener is taken on a rollercoaster ride, with Magnuson’s rising squawks and belly dropping fog horn blasts. Grassi’s snare, tom, hi- hat combos are superb.
Creative Catalysts is the 62nd volume in the Spirit Room Series and features two dominating musicians at the peak of their game. It is the way free jazz should be, without gimmicks and without apologies.
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ETHNIC HERITAGE ENSEMBLE
Just look at the Bulls with and without Michael Jordan. As the latter, they don’t even remotely resemble a collegiate team, let alone the team that won six championships. Not the case with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, created two decades ago, the Chicago-based band lost saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, but fitting right in was reedman Ernest ‘Khabeer’ Dawkins, who actually lends more with his ferocious, no holds barred approach. Along with trombonist Joseph Bowie, percussionist ‘Atu’ Harold Murray, and founding member, percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, the EHE doesn’t skip a beat for their latest Delmark effort, The Continuum.
The quartet’s reinvention of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” includes an abundance of multiphonic illustrations from Bowie and spirited, alto eruptions from Dawkins. “Ancestral Song” starts with a mid-tempo groove from the percussionists and African chants from the leader El’Zabar. Dawkins’s eases back a tad for his nomadic improvisations, but still manages to keep the integrity of his edge. The phat, pulsating beat of “Ornette” is dangerously primal. Staying with the inner beast theme, Dawkins unleashes a solo that covers the spectrum from unbelievably inventive post-bop to thought provoking, cutting-edge, unabashed avant-garde with no garnish, a fitting description for the album and its band.
Since the Bulls aren’t worth watching anymore, stay at home and chill to the sounds of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, easily one of the finest groups in contemporary music today.
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