Friday, July 24, 2015

Keeping the beat

Want a great summer read that you'll find hard to put down? Check out novelist Mary Morris's fine new work, "The Jazz Palace" (Doubleday's Nan A. Talese imprint). This is her 10th novel. It is a beautifully crafted work that Morris worked on for two decades amid other projects.

It's set in booming, rough-and-tumble Chicago in the 1920s, whose primary character is Benny Lehmann, whose passion in life is jazz piano. As his story unfolds and interwines with several other interesting significant characters, it involves the lives of two Jewish families beset by separate and blended tragedies, set against a backdrop of music, gangsters, racial divides, love, passion and the eve of the Great Depression.

The music is the heart and soul that moves this story along like like an extended blues form. With her skill as a writer, Morris' prose carries a musical cadence that pulls you into the work and holds you there through its twists, turns and ultimate triumph.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Jazz singers are in today’s spotlight. Taking a look at a variety of stunning new CDs by Thana Alexa, Keri Johnsrud, Gillian Margot, Joanna Pascale and Charenée Wade….

Thana Alexa, Ode to Heroes (Harmonia Mundi / Jazz Village)

 New York City-born, Croatia-raised Thana Alexa has an exotic voice and significant talent as a composer and lyricist. This is her debut CD as a leader after guesting on several CDs by guitarist Gene Ess and her husband, the fine drummer Antonio Sanchez, who co-produced this session. In addition to writing eight originals, she also penned fresh lyrics for and arranged the music for “Trace Back Your Footprints” (Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”) and “The Wanderer” (her version of Charles Mingus’ Lester Young elegy, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”). 

My favorites: the title track, which she wrote with Sanchez and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin in mind; the “Footprints” redux and “Ghost Hawk,” which she wrote in memory to her brother Niki, who died five years ago in a motorcycle accident. She also included a lovely version of “Take Five,” the Paul Desmond classic with lyrics by Dave and Iola Brubeck. Alexa is a musician who happens to sing. She employs scatting and vocalese to sparing, yet great, effect on several tracks. Other key collaborators here include pianist Sergio Salvatore, bassist Jorge Roeder and tenor player Lenart Krecic (McCaslin only guests on the powerful title track).

Keri Johnsrud, This Side of Morning (self-produced)
Singer-songwriter Keri Johnsrud has been working in the Chicago jazz scene for about 15 years. All of her material here is original, with her writing the lyrics and pianist Kevin Bales writing most of the music for her finely honed musical short stories. Like the great preponderance of vocal material, she explores various aspects of love, romance and love lost - through her own filters and imagination. The gems include “When Morning Dawns,” “Everything’s Okay,” and the clever “The Chameleon.” The band includes bassist Larry Kohut, guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Jon Deitemyer and vibes player Stephen Lynerd, all of who provide strong support and memorable solos. Check her out.

Gillian Margot, Black Butterfly (HiPNOTIC) 
The great thing about jazz projects is that musicians can take a range of fine material from other genres and enhance it in their own way. Toronto-based Gillian Margot and her producer, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, recruited a team of fine New York-based musicians for this project, in which Margot puts her own stamp on a wide variety of jazz, pop and soul tunes. The band includes Pelt, saxophonist Roxy Cross, guitarist Freddie Bryant, pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Kendrick Scott. The opening title track is a hybrid, with Margot adding her own lyrics to pianist George Cables’ jazz tune “Ebony Moonbeams.”

No matter whether she’s taking a gospel or bluesy approach in her interpretations, Margot’s sound is imbued with subtlety, pathos and wistfulness. The gems include her takes on Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You,” a bluesy ballad version of Simply Red’s “1985 hit “Holding Back the Years,” and an a capella version of Joni Mitchell’s “Conversation.” There’s also a fine original blues in which she’s backed only by Goods on upright bass. That one’s a conversation too.

Joanna Pascale, Wildflower (Stiletto)
Philly-based Joanna Pascale says she only sings songs that she loves and connects with. That approach greatly enhances Wildflower, her fourth CD as a leader. She’s backed by producer Orrin Evans on piano, Vicente Archer on bass, and Obed Calvaire on drums. Cyrus Chestnut (piano and B-3 organ, Christian McBride and Luques Curtis (bass), Donald Edwards (drums) and Gregoire Maret (harmonica) are among the special guests on select tracks. She even performs J.J. Johnson’s jazz ballad “Lament,” with fresh lyrics written for her by Tony Haywood.

Favorite tracks: the opener “Forget Me,” which Washington DC-based poet Valerie Brown wrote and her good friend Shirley Horn first recorded; Pascale’s takes on Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and the Gerry Goffin-Carole King pop classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (both enhanced by Maret’s wonderful harmonica work); and a splendid cover of Henry Glover’s soulful “Drown in My Own Tears” (with Maret on harmonica and Chestnut on B-3). The title track, a 1970s pop hit for Skylark that’s been covered by many singers over the years, sure endures. Pascale does it justice here with a wistful version featuring guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Tim Motzer, and backing vocals by soul singer Bilal. There is much here to savor, as Pascale celebrates quality songwriting.

2010 Monk International Jazz Competition runner-up Charenée Wade has brought her vocal talents and life’s perspective to 11 pieces from the voluminous songbook of the late Gil Scott-Heron and his frequent musical collaborator Brian Jackson. Christian McBride and Malcolm-Jamal Warner are the narrators on two Scott-Heron pieces, “Peace Go With You, Brother” (from his Winter in America album) and “Essex/Martin, Grant Byrd & Till” respectively. The tracks include “Song of the Wind,” “Peace Go With You Brother,” “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman,” “Home is Where the Hatred is, and the optimistic “I Think I’ll Call it Morning.” 

Wade’s all-star musical collaborators are pianist Brandon McCune, guitarist Dave Stryker, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Alvester Garnett, vibes player Stefon Harris, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and Marcus Miller on bass clarinet. Four decades after we heard Scott-Heron deal with growing up black in America issues – perhaps the clearest inspiration for the rap and hip-hop genres – with anger, pathos and optimism, current events show his social empowerment message is just as relevant today. Wade and her collaborators have carried that reminder forth with great beauty, feeling, hope and triumph.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CDs by Pat Bianchi, Brian Charette, Jason Miles & Ingrid Jensen, Josh Nelson and Donald Vega….

Pat Bianchi, A Higher Standard (21-H)

B-3 player Pat Bianchi, who provides the keyboard sound in guitarist Pat Martino’s organ trio, is a musical adventurer who understands and coveys the deep energy groove that is so vital to jazz. A Higher Standard, his sixth CD as a leader or co-leader, teams Bianchi with bassist Craig Ebner and drummer Byron Landham. Favorite tracks: their take on the Sergio Mendes classic “So Many Stars,” the Bianchi burner “The Will of Landham,” their romp through Oscar Pettiford’s “Bohemia After Dark,” Bill Evans' classic “Very Early” and Stevie Wonder’s “From the Bottom of My Heart.” There are also interesting takes on material by Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane and Horace Silver.

Brian Charette, Alphabet City (Posi-Tone)

The B-3 organ seems centered in soul jazz, but Brian Charette is one of the modernists who are taking that classic B-3 sound into fresh territory. Alphabet City, his ninth release, teams him with guitarist Will Bernard and drummer Rudy Royston for propulsive explorations of a dozen Charette originals. Favorite tracks: the teasing sounds of “They Left Fred Out,” the soulful “Sharpie Moustache,” the Pink Panther-like “Hungarian Major” and the hard-driving closer, “The Vague Reply.” Hammond B-3 fans in particular need to check this out. The trio is hot as the members combine their individual musical voices into a splendid conversation.

Jason Miles / Ingrid Jensen, Kind of New (Whaling City Sound)

This gem, co-led by keyboard player Jason Miles and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, is already high on my list of 2015 favorites. Inspiration for the 11 originals came from trumpeter Miles Davis’ early 1970s live concert music and his progressive jazz that followed into the late 1980s. Jason Miles, who brought his keyboard skills to three 1980s Davis projects (Tutu, Amandla and Music From Siesta), was greatly inspired by Davis’ Cellar Door Sessions, which featured Keith Jarrett on Fender Rhodes. 

The only non-originals here are their takes on Wayne Shorter’s “Sanctuary,” which was on Davis’ breakthrough electric album Bitches Brew, and an unlisted bonus track covering Davis' playful "Jean Pierre." They took the spirit of Miles, and imbued it with their own visions of electric jazz for today. Two tracks of particular note: the ballad “Shirley,” dedicated to the late singer-pianist Shirley Horn, and the mournfully edgy “Seeing Through the Rain,” which they dedicated to Ferguson MO. Miles, Jensen and their collaborators made a project that is stunning from start to finish.

Josh Nelson, Exploring Mars (Origin)

Jazz inspiration can come from anywhere at all. In the case of pianist-composer Josh Nelson, it comes from the annals of the finest science fiction and real-time space exploration, including four different robotic rovers (Curiosity, Opportunity, Sojourner and Spirit) exploring the surface of the Red Planet. To set the mood, Nelson opens the CD by reading a section from a Ray Bradbury short story from 1950’s “The Martian Chronicles.” Quite appropriately, the passage depicts a Martian jam session. Favorite tracks: “Memmonia Quadrangle,” a superb solo showcase for guitarist Larry Koonse, and “How You Loved Me on Mars.” The latter is a ballad co-written and sung by Kathleen Grace, with Larry Goldings guesting on B-3.

Donald Vega, With Respect to Monty (Resonance)

In the jazz world, most tribute recordings tend to be recorded and released after the death of a jazz great. That’s unfortunate, since the subject of such inspiration isn’t around to hear them. Pianist Donald Vega bucked the trend with this release interpreting compositions by Jamaican-born Monty Alexander, who is one of the reigning powerhouse jazz piano greats. 

Vega arranged and interprets a wide range of Alexander’s music, including two tunes Alexander recorded and performed regularly but did not write (Milt Jackson’s “Compassion” and John Clayton’s “3000 Miles Ago”), and adds a tune of his own that’s brimming with Alexander-like touches. The band includes guitarist Anthony Wilson, an ideal melodic foil for Vega; bassist Hassan Shakur (who also happens to be Alexander’s regular bassist); and drummer Lewis Nash. Favorite gems: “Slippery” with its shifting reggae feel and exotic percussion touches, “Mango Rengue,” “Renewal” and Vega’s playful tribute summation, “The Gathering.” There is much here to love.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Looking forward to Newport

There is pretty much something for every jazz fan at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival this July 31-August 2, no matter your stylistic or demographic preferences. A lot of crowd favorites are back - like Maria Schneider's Orchestra, pianists Hiromi  and Michel Camilo, and singer-pianist Jamie Cullum. 

The talent longevity ranges from 88-year-old Lou Donaldson, appearing Sunday with his quartet, to pianist Joey Alexander, who turned 12 a few days ago. Alexander will bring his trio to the festival's intimate new Storyville jazz stage inside the Museum of Yachting on Saturday.
Jon Batiste

New Orleans will be well-represented again this year with Jon Batiste & Stay Human, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and Dr. John.

The weekend's many singers include Cassandra Wilson, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Jose James, Lisa Fischer, Dr. John, and Cullum.

Here are several acts I find most interesting and noteworthy each day. There are always painful choices with overlapping sets on four stages. They are on my not-to-be missed list, though I undoubtedly will also see many more.
Bria Skonberg

Friday, July 31:
  • The jazz collective Snarky Puppy, a band that is bringing many young fans to the music.
  • Sets by two rising young bandleaders: saxophonist Matana Roberts with her band Coin Coin, and trumpeter-singer Bria Skonberg with her trad-influenced but wide-ranging quintet.
 Saturday, August 1:
  • The Maria Schneider Orchestra, which is just out with what is her most formidable recording to date, The Thompson Fields.
  • Guitarist Pat Martino's organ trio with Pat Bianchi on B-3 and Carmen Intorre on drums.
  • Trumpeter Tom Harrell's quintet. Harrell has played Newport in the distant past as a sideman, but this is his first showcase at the festival as a leader. Long overdue and most welcome.
  • Pat Martino
  • Trombonist Conrad Herwig's "Latin Side of Horace Silver" project featuring Michel Camilo.
  • Pianists Helen Sung and Joey Alexander at the Storyville stage.

 Sunday, August 2:
  • A set of piano duets by Camilo and Hiromi, this should be incendiary, given the passion and power both exude at the keyboard.
  • Dr. John, the New Orleans gris gris ambassador, who had to cancel at the last minute a year ago due to a bout of the flu.
  • Trumpeter Jon Faddis' "triumph of the trumpets" set that teams the longtime Dizzy Gillespie protege with Sean Jones and Marquis Hill, who was the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner.
  • Pianist Fred Hersch's trio. If anyone can be described as carrying on the musical momentum of the late Bill Evans, surely it is Hersch.
There is much much more, including an appearance by drummer Jack DeJohnette's Made in Chicago band with Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and Larry Gray.  There are also two panel discussions a day that consider various aspects of Miles Davis' Newport legacy, this being the 60th anniversary of his breakthrough appearance at Newport in July 1955.  

Here's a link to the schedule. If you're heading to Newport. bring open ears, sunblock and lots of energy.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What a wonderful change of pace

The jazz concert season is pretty much gone in Florida from May until the snowbirds start returning in the fall. While there are regular club and restaurant gigs to fill in the gap, it was a treat to have an actual concert to attend.
Najar, Lamb, Feinman, Suggs, Ellison

The Venice Art Center and the South County Jazz Club teamed up to present a Louis Armstrong tribute concert on Thursday, June 25, featuring a quintet led by fine young trumpeter James Suggs. He's an engaging player with family roots in Newport RI, but who grew up in Ohio. He moved to St. Petersburg area in 2014 after having spent the prior eight years living and working in Argentina.

Tom Ellison, James Suggs, Brian Hughes
Suggs was backed by Southwest Florida jazz stalwarts Nate Najar on guitar, John Lamb on bass, Mark Feinman on drums and the versatile reed player Tom Ellison on clarinet. Brian Hughes provided vocals on five  tunes.

The concert underscored just how much music associated with Armstrong is embedded in the foundation of jazz and American culture. ""I love Louis Armstrong, I always have," Suggs told the audience, a full house of about 170. "He's just one of those guys who's iconic. He is one of the best the world has ever seen." Suggs' speaking about Armstrong in the present tense made sense, given the entertainer's enduring legacy 44 years after his death on July 6, 1971.

The evening's repertoire included "West End Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue,"  "Basin Street Blues," "When It's Sleepytime Down South," "St. James Infirmary," La Vie En Rose," "Mack the Knife and, of course, "When the Saints Go Marching In," among others. The band's version of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" was exquisite. Ellison had a fine clarinet feature on "I'm Confessin' That I Love You."

Sharon Preston-Folta, Louis Armstrong's daughter from a 20-year sometimes turbulent affair the trumpeter had with her mother, was on hand to sign copies of her book, "Little Satchmo: Living in the Shadow of My Father, Louis Daniel Armstrong."  She now lives in Sarasota.

In brief intermission remarks, she said Armstrong took she and her mother on summer tours with him when she was ages 3-7, bought her mother a house and supported them. She said she last saw him when she was 13, not too long before his health failed and he passed away.

Monday, June 22, 2015

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CDs by Tony Adamo, Dave Bass, Maria Schneider, Chris Washburne and Kenny Werner….
Tony Adamo, Tony Adamo & The New York Crew (Urbanzone)
There are many people who play and sing within the jazz tradition today, but there are few real hipsters. Count vocalist Tony Adamo among the truly hip. He uses his music and words delivered in what he calls “vocal hipspokenword” to tell Kerouac-style stories that deliver portraits of the jazz scene, some of its giants and a few characters and players we get to know better through his art. Adamo has an all-star support team here, including drummer Mike Clark, bassist Richie Goods, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Tim Ouimette, percussionist Bill Summers and pianist Michael Wolff, with drummer Lenny White and guitarist Jean Santalis joining on one track apiece. Favorites: “Gale Blowin High” (an aural portrait of trumpeter Eddie Gale), an Eddie Harris ode on “Listen Here Listen Up” and an Art Blakey tribute called “Messengers Burnin.” Dig its hip musicality.

Dave Bass, NYC Sessions (Whaling City Sound) 
Pianist Dave Bass makes for an interesting jazz story. And he makes terrific jazz. He started out as a musician until a broken wrist – and some doubt he’d ever play again – sent him to law school and a career ass a deputy attorney general in California. He started playing seriously again a decade ago. NYC Sessions is his second CD as a leader. He teamed up with alto sax veteran Phil Woods, bassist Harvie S, a variety of Latin players and singers Karrin Allyson and Paulette McWilliams. My favorites are the leader’s “Lost Valentine” (featuring Allyson) his clever medley of Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona’s “La Comparsa” and his own “Mi Montuno,” and another Latin original, “Baltic Bolero.” All four vocal features show Bass is a fine lyricist as well as composer.

Maria Schneider Orchestra, TheThompson Fields (artistShare)
It’s been eight long years since bandleader Maria Schneider has released a new jazz project. Not that she hasn’t been busy. Last years, she collected three Grammy Awards for her classical album Winter Morning Walks. Her new jazz release, The Thompson Fields, may be her finest triumph in a stellar career as a jazz orchestra leader, composer/arranger and conceptualist. No one in jazz today, or at least in big band jazz, writes in such evocative fashion.

This project was inspired by the love for her prairie home of her childhood in southwest Minnesota. The title track was inspired by multi-generation farm near her home in Windom MN. She captures its strength and its beauty. There are three clear favorites here, tough choices on a CD where all eight tracks are gems. The title track, a showcase for pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund; “The Monarch and the Milkweed,” which features exquisite solos by Marshal Gilkes on trombone and Greg Gisbert on fluegelhorn; and “A Potter’s Song,’ which features Gary Versace on accordion. The latter track was written for trumpeter Laurie Frink, who died in 2013. Frink, who had played on every previous Schneider jazz project, was also a very fine ceramicist. Five stars - and then some.

Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, Low Ridin’ (Zoho)
The evolution continues for trombonist Chris Washburne’s Latin jazz band, SYOTOS (an acronym for “See You On The Other Side”). Now in its 24th year, the band is using this project to push the Latin jazz genre to what Washburne calls “acid mambo.” This CD puts a variety of Latin rhythms to classic 1970s rock tunes he grew up with. They include the Joe Cocker hit “Feelin’ Alright,” WAR’s “Low Rider,” Neil Young’s “Ohio” and “Sugar Mountain,” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” among others. One clever gem: a bolero-cha version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is mashed up with Duke Ellington’s 1968 sacred music hymn “Heaven.” Few bands could pull this off. SYOTOS does it well.

Kenny Werner, The Melody (Pirouet)
Pianist Kenny Werner’s newest CD, The Melody, celebrates the essence of the jazz trio at its highest level. He’s been working with bassist Johannes Weidenmüller and drummer Ari Hoenig for 16 years and that familiarity results in terrific musical conversations that are never static or mundane. Quite the contrary. They find new facets to explore in three covers (the pop song “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks,  Dave Brubeeck’s lush ballad “In Your Own Sweet Way” and John Coltrane’s “26-2” plus four Werner originals.Favorites: their versions of the Brubeck tune, and Werner’s gorgeous “Beauty Secrets.” Instinctive musicality, a dash of whimsy and constant creativity rule here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

JJA's 2015 winners

Congratulations to the many winners announced and awarded yesterday at the Jazz Journalists Association's 2015 JJA Jazz Awards event at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City. Here's a rundown of the winners, including the Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism Award to Chicago-based Neil Tesser. 

Full disclosure: two of the jazz journalism outlets to which I am a long-time contributor won repeat honors. JazzTimes was named Jazz Publication of the Year. was named Jazz Website of the year. Kudos to both and all of the other category winners and nominees.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A key to success at Newport

The best businesses – and arts organizations – don’t stand still. They find ways to enhance what they do. They making the experience better for their customers and supporters while building on their success. Need a concrete example? Look no further than the many enhancements over the past decade that the owners made at Fenway Park in Boston, starting with the seats atop the Green Monster overlooking left field. 

Here's a jazz example. The Newport Jazz Festival for many years consisted of a succession of performance sets on one stage. That was the case in the 1950s and 1960s at its succession of homes at Newport Casino, Cardines Field, Freebody Park and Festival Field through 1971. With the festivals’ return to Newport in 1981 after a decade-long absence, it’s new more spacious home at Fort Adams State overlooking Newport Harbor provided the ideal space for a venue evolution.
George Wein

Over the past three decades at Fort Adams, the main stage was been supplemented by two side stages, including one that is now located on the former parade ground inside the fortress itself. For the 2015 edition, set for July 31-August 2, founding producer George Wein and his team have added a fourth performance venue.
They are putting an intimate festival stage, with seating for 100 fans, inside the Museum of Yachting, which is located in one of the buildings just inside the festival gate. On Saturday and Sunday, Storyville will feature performances by pianists Frank Kimbrough, Helen Sung, Christian Sands, Aaron Diehl, Giorgi Mikadze and 12-year old jazz prodigy Joey Alexander. The Storyville stage also will feature two seminars each day focusing on renowned trumpeter Miles Davis, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the trumpeter’s first performance at Newport on July 17, 1955.

Storyville is an ideal name for this club-like venue. It was the name of the jazz club that Wein was running in Boston when he got into the jazz production business. Newport socialite Elaine Lorillard walked into Storyville, with a Boston University professor in 1953 to meet Wein because she and her husband Louis were interested in bringing some excitement to Newport. From that meeting, Wein developed the idea to present a jazz festival in Newport. The first was held at historic Newport Casino in July 1954. 

The Casino, now better known as the International Tennis Hall of Fame, has been hosting Newport Jazz Festival opening night concerts since 1988, events that attract both jazz fans and Newport’s social scenemakers. This year’s Friday night concert, on July 31, will feature pianist Jon Batiste and trumpeter Chris Botti with their respective bands.

More festival information can be found here.

The Newport Jazz Festival crowd on a sunny day at Fort Adams.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hitting the jazz highway

Building your jazz skills isn’t just about playing your instrument, singing your songs, developing your style and strengthening your improvisational skills. It’s also about dealing with challenges on the road, disruptive sleep patterns, and getting along with your band mates as you jump on the van and head to the next gig.

Four students from the Boston-based Berklee College of Music will absorb a lot of that experience starting Thursday when they join trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on a five-date concert tour winding through parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic. They’ll perform five gigs in five nights.

The students in Jensen’s quintet for this mini-tour include drummer Peter Barnick from Homewood IL, saxophonist Daniel Ko from Ottawa, Canada; bassist Max Salinger-Ridley from Boston; and pianist Zahili Gonzalez Zamora from Manzanillo, Cuba.

Salinger-Ridley, Ko, Jensen, Zamora, Barnick *

They will perform at the Regattabar in Cambridge MA (Thursday, May 14), the Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (Friday, May 15), Philadelphia’s Clef Club (Saturday, May 16), the Side Door in Old Lyme CT, (Sunday, May 17), and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City (Monday, May 18).

Jensen (Berklee Class of 1989) is giving the students more than they would ever absorb in master classes, although she is skilled at that as well.

The trumpeter has taught jazz at the University of Michigan and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and has performed and lectured at universities, colleges, and conservatories throughout the US and Europe. She is a guest director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and has participated in a variety of summer institutes and workshops, including the Centrum Jazz Workshop, The Dave Brubeck Institute and the Banff Centre Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music.

This is the third, and most expansive year, of Berklee's Masters on the Road series. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut (Berklee Class of 1985) took a student sextet to Dizzy’s and the DC Jazz Festival. Last year, saxophonist Donald Harrison (Berklee Class of 1981) performed with students at clubs in Connecticut and New York.

(*Berklee-provided photo by David Green)

Monday, May 4, 2015

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Guitars and saxes aplenty. Taking a closer look at CDs by Russell Malone, Hailey Niswanger, Bjørn Solli, Dave Stryker and Doug Webb….

Russell Malone, Love Looks Good on You (HighNote)
Russell Malone, who cut his jazz teeth collaborating with Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, is one of the finest and most versatile guitarists of his generation. And here’s proof. This quartet session contains a terrific blend of material on which Malone puts his own artful stamp. He’s joined by pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. Favorites: their takes on Malone’s title-track ballad, Isaac Hayes’ “Ellie’s Love Theme” (from the movie Shaft), George Coleman’s “Amsterdam After Dark” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Sweet Sioux.”

Hailey Niswanger, PDX Soul (Calmit)

Fine young saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s second recording as a leader honors the soulful side of her musical roots growing up in Portland, Oregon. Niswanger (pronounced “NICE-wonger”) brought together 16 Portland-based musicians for this recording. The band included trumpeter Thara Memory, Niswanger’s mentor and producer of this CD, and keyboard player Janice Scroggins, who passed away in May 2014. 

Niswanger included five fine originals and three covers of soul classics. Standout tracks include her own “Say What It Is” and the hard-driving “You Should Know”; plus Dyke and The Blazers’ “Let a Woman be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man” and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” The latter features vocals by LaRhonda Steele. PDX Soul is drenched with soul and top-flight musicality.

Bjørn Solli, Aglow: The Lyngør Project Volume 1 (Lyngør)

This is an impressionistic jazz masterpiece that you ought not to miss. Norwegian guitarist Bjørn Solli ‘s music focuses on the beauty, history and beautiful people of Lyngør, an archgipelago south of Norway. He has fallen in love with the locale since first visiting in 2007 and has performed annual concerts there with visiting musicians for several summers. Commissioned by the Lyngør Jazz Club, the project’s material was inspired by and written on Lyngør, and recorded in New York with some of his favorite jazz players. He composed the material with the sound of each player in mind.

The band includes Solli, saxophonist Seamus Blake (on soprano and tenor), trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Bill Stewart. Favorites: “Calenture,” “August at Last,” and “A Dog Named Fanny.” “Windjammer” is a wonderful extended showcase for Solli’s shimmering style. On Volume 2, Solli plans to reverse his approach, by arranging a variety of jazz standards and recording them on Lyngør.

Dave Stryker, Messin’ With Mister T (Strikezone)

Guitarist Dave Stryker has put together a gem of a recording in this tribute to his late boss, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. All of the material comes from set lists Turrentine used during the decade+ that Stryker worked with him. Stryker assembled his organ trio (with Jared Gold on B-3, McClenty Hunter on drums), with percussionist Mayra Casales guesting on six tracks, to support one track apiece from ten top-notch jazz tenor saxophonists. 

They include Houston Person, Mike Lee (a veteran of other Stryker ensembles), Don Braden, Jimmy Heath, Chris Potter, Bob Mintzer, Eric Alexander, Javon Jackson, longtime Stryker collaborator Steve Slagle and Tivon Pennicott.  Gems include Potter’s take on “Impressions,” Jackson’s version of Turrentine’s beloved original “Sugar” and Alexander’s fresh take on Milton Nascimento’s “Salt Song.” Also dig Heath’s balladry on Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” This project is strong from start to finish. Bravo.

Doug Webb, Triple Play (Posi-Tone)

If you’re a hard-core tenor sax fan, this one’s for you. L.A.-based Doug Webb teamed with Joel Frahm and Walt Weiskopf for this triple-tenor recording, on which they’re nimbly supported by rising stars Brian Charette on organ and Rudy Royston on drums. They tackle a variety of jazz standards and originals (two apiece from Webb and Weiskopf, one from Frahm).The many gems include their takes on “Avalon,” ”I Concentrate on You” and Lou Donaldson’s burner, “Alligator Boogaloo,” as well as Weiskopf’s “Three’s a Crowd” and Lanny Morgan’s “Pail Blues.” There’s plenty of solo space to share, but they also excel at shout choruses and a saxophone choir feel as needed.