Thursday, April 21, 2016

What’s on your jazz list?

By the very nature of the process of making the music, any tune can become a jazz tune. Some well-known standards, which I need not mention to further popularize them, are done so often that they are beyond tiresome. But jazz compositions stick with you for other reasons. The melody may be striking, or perhaps you’ve witnessed a performance that left you with goosebumps. The reasons will vary from listener to listener.

Just for fun, I started thinking the other night about my most favorite jazz tunes.

Here are the top 12 – right now. The first five are ranked by personal preference. The others are close behind but not listed in any particular order.

Ahmad Jamal at Newport, 2010
1 - “Poinciana” - Ahmad Jamal has been playing this 1930s tune, popularized in the 1952 film “Dreamboat,” since the mid-1950s. It became his become his signature tune thanks to a two-year ride on the top 10 charts after his 1958 recorded version was released in 1963 on his Live at the Pershing album. I’ve heard him perform it live many times – and never the same way twice. He always finds new things to explore and share.

2 - “Con Alma” - Dizzy Gillespie is better known for his standards “Manteca” and “Night in Tunisia,” among others. This ballad, with a Spanish name that translates as “with soul” has always been a favorite. It is a beauty - and is so different than the music we normally associate with Dizzy.

3 - “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)” - This Joaquin Rodrigo composition is the opening segment - dare I say highlight? – of the landmark Miles Davis and Gil Evans Sketches of Spain project. It is one of my favorite Davis albums. Little-known fact: When the album was first released in 1960, the packaging did not include the band personnel. One of them was drummer Elvin Jones - who played the mood-setting castinets.

4 - “Peace” - This Horace Silver ballad’s finest rendition, to my ears, is by pianist Tommy Flanagan on his 1978 Something Borrowed, Something Blue album. The esteemed jazz broadcaster Eric Jackson used this version as his “Eric in the Evening” theme song for many years on WGBH-FM in Boston.

5 - “Blue in Green” - This Bill Evans composition was one of only two ballads on Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue album. Evans wrote the tune, but Davis got the compositional credit - and royalty checks. Its modal melody sticks with you.

-  To Wisdom, the Prize” - Bassist Dominic Mancini hipped me to this pensive Larry Willis tune. He’d first heard it on a Joey Calderazzo trio album The Traveler (Blue Note, 1993). It debuted 10 years earlier on trumpeter Nat Adderley’s On the Move album when Willis was the band’s pianist. That session was recorded in October 1982 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner jazz club.

-  Little Sunflower” - This Freddie Hubbard classic is quite the contrast to his more uptempo material.

-  Jeannine” - Duke Pearson wrote it around 1960. Many jazz bands have covered it and continue to do so today. It’s boppish energy make it a great springboard for improvisers.

-  Afro-Blue” - Mongo Santamaria composed this Latin jazz gem. John Coltrane covered it, so did McCoy Tyner, whose big band arrangement is riveting.

-  The Sidewinder” - Lee Morgan’s 1964 album title track stands out as a genre-defining tune for the 1960s soul jazz scene, much like another personal favorite, Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Both have become jazz standards.

-  Joy Spring” - Trumpeter Clifford Brown composed it as a tribute to his wife. It was recorded in1954 on the EmArcy recording Clifford Brown& Max Roach – two years before Brown died in a car crash at age 25. Thanks to music like this, his jazz legacy endures 60 years later.

- “Moanin’” - This Bobby Timmons tune was first recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958. It has a catchy call-and-response melodic segment that indeed caught on – and helped turn it into a jazz instrumental standard. Singer Jon Hendricks added lyrics.

So, what’s on your list?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CD releases by Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton, Ari Erev, Lyle Mays and Sonny Rollins…

Scott Hamilton/Harry Allen, Live! (GAC)
Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton earn their bread and butter – and have built solid reputations – over many decades as two of the finest swing tenor saxophonists around. But both are quite capable of friskier playing. This CD, recorded live in February 2014 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz CA, is a gem of a tenor battle. They are supported by pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Paul Keller and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. The highlight is the closer, Hamilton and Allen’s 15-minute version of Gene Ammons’ and Sonny Stitt’s hard-driving “Blues up and Down.” How appropriate to tip their hat to the men who arguably set the bar for this kind of two-tenor performance. This is one to savor.

Ari Erev, Flow (Acum)
Pianist and composer Ari Erev pulled together some of his favorite Israeli jazz musicians for this beautiful project. He’s a melodic songwriter who loves infusing modern jazz harmonies with Latin rhythms. Ten of the dozen tracks are Erev originals. Highlights: “Jumping in the Water,” “Playful Moments,” “July, Again,” “Treasures in Havana” (one of five features for soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen), and the band’s take on Fred Hersch’s stunning “Endless Stars.” The band also includes bassist Eli Magen, drummer Ron Almog and percussionist Gilad Dobrecky.

Lyle Mays Quartet, The Ludwigsburg Concert (SWR Jazzhaus)
We've heard little from or about pianist/keyboardist Lyle Mays since guitarist Pat Metheny suspended his longstanding Pat Metheny Group six years ago to pursue a variety of other projects. He had been Metheny’s musical alter ego since 1977. That history, and Mays’ departure from the radar screen, makes this project so special. This features Mays’ acoustic quartet live in concert at the Scala jazz club in Ludwigsburg, Germany in November 1993. The band that fine night included saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Mark Walker.

The two-CD set includes eight Mays originals plus “Au Lait” a tune co-written with Metheny. Highlights: The opener, “Fictionary,” a 24-minute gem that begins with an extended piano solo before the band adds more exuberance, the edgy “Either Ornette,” the pensive ”Lincoln Reviews His Notes,” the spirited “August” and “Are We There Yet?” The latter tune features the rhythmic undercurrent reminiscent of so many great tunes from the PMG repertoire. It’s a rare thing to hear Mays playing acoustic piano. That makes this set even more special.

Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy/OKeh)
Tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins has always preferred the energy and musical tightrope afforded by a live performance to the sterile confines of a recording studio. That viewpoint has much to do with the success of his series of Road Shows recordings. The newest one, Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4, documents Rollins in a wide array of band configurations and in an extended time span – one track from 1979 at Finland’s Pori Jazz Festival to a pair from a 2012 European tour. One track, recorded four years ago in Prague, is a two-minute duet by Rollins and guitarist Saul Rubin on “Mixed Emotions.” It was the only time Rollins has performed the ballad. Most Rollins tunes feature him riding strong over his band’s rhythmic cushion. How unusual to hear an intimate musical dialogue - on what's likely the briefest track he’s ever recorded.

The gems here are from his September 15, 2001 concert at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, just four days after terrorists destroyed New York’s World Trade Towers. Rollins’ Grammy-winning Milestone album Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, documented most of the emotional performance. The pieces here, which didn’t fit on his Without a Song CD, include “You’re Mine You,” which Rollins had never recorded previously, and the incredible closer: a 23-minute medley that closed concert. “Sweet Leilani” led into a five-minute unaccompanied solo, touching on many facets of Rollins' extensive songbook, that was a bridge to the band’s 11-minute take on “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” What a masterpiece.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Spotlighting Naples-area jazz talent

Two Naples FL bandleaders brought their groups to Port Charlotte on Monday, April 11 to close the Charlotte County Jazz Society's 25th Anniversary Season with a double concert.

Dave Morgan, Mark Neuenschwander
Dave Morgan, a triple threat performer on vibes, vocals and drums, stuck to the first two skills in a strong performance by his quartet, which included Mac Chrupcala on piano, Mark Neuenschwander on bass and Bill E. Peterson on drums.

Morgan dug deep into the jazz repertoire to present several classic tunes that aren't heard much these days. They included Illinois Jacquet and Sir Charles Thompson's "Robbin's Nest," Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" (the latter a feature for Chrupcala), and Duke Ellington's "Azure," which featured Morgan on both vibes and vocals.  
Bill E. Peterson

Vibes player Milt Jackson's composition "J.C." spotlighted Neuenschwander, who Morgan described as "one of the finest bass players to walk this earth." Few listeners would disagree. The band's take on "J.C." included intriguing conversational call-and-response segments between the bass and the vibes. Peterson well understands the art of musical conversation between all of the players on the bandstand, adding sly comments and strong punctuation with his sticks and brushes throughout the set.

Bob Zottola
The crowd was treated to another Naples drum great, James Martin, during the second half of the show, which featured trumpeter Bob Zottola's quartet, Jazz Simpatico. The band was rounded out by bassist Kevin Mauldin and pianist Stu Shelton (who also was aboard for CCJS' season-opening concert when he played in singer-drummer Patricia Dean's band).

James Martin
Zottola, a New York big band veteran and 16-year member of Broadway's "Les Miserables" pit band before moving to Florida in 2004, offered a looser program with a wide range of material and perhaps too many vocals. He's a trumpet master - and more than a few in the audience weren't there to hear him sing.

The band's repertoire included Ivan Lins' sultry Brazilian bossa nova hit "Love Dance" (recorded by many singers including Barbra Streisand and George Benson) and strong takes on Clark Terry's arrangement of "Perdido" and Clifford Brown's bouncy "Joy Spring." Zottola tipped his hat to the classic Miles Davis sound with his Harmon-muted take on "Bye Bye Blackbird." His flugelhorn rendition of Sidney Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere," an aching ballad that dominated the music in Woody Allen's film "Midnight in Paris," was superb.

Shelton, Mauldin and Martin provided exemplary support throughout the set. Martin is interesting because of the wide range of subtle touches and extensive accents he gets out of his minimalist drum kit. Because he drives an Austin Healy, he packs just a tiny bass drum, one snare, two cymbals and a hi-hat, but he gets a phenomenal amount of music from them. A lot of younger drummers should pay close attention to his approach. It's not how much gear you have, it's what you do with it.
Mac Chrupcala, Dave Morgan, Mark Neuenschwander, Bill E. Peterson
Stu Shelton, Bob Zottola, Kevin Mauldin, James Martin

Friday, April 1, 2016

Jazz Appreciation Month is here

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, by proclamation of the Smithsonian, and that's no joke.

For the next 30 days, a lot of things will be happening across the US and around the world to celebrate this great art form that continues to thrive and grow - despite the sometimes overpowering hype and celebrity spotlight enjoyed by other forms of music appealing to mass audiences.

The Smithsonian's effort, started in 2002, has become a larger umbrella than it anticipated. Other key things taking place in April include the NEA Jazz Masters awards and International Jazz Day. The latter takes place on April 30 under the sponsorship of UNESCO and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters will be honored on Monday, April 4 at the Kennedy Center in Washington. This year's list includes vibes player, bandleader author and educator Gary Burton, tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shep, and jazz activist Wendy Oxenhorn. Since the program began in 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has honored 140 jazz greats.

New York-based Oxenhorn is receiving the 2016 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, which is bestowed upon an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the art form of jazz. She is executive director and vice chairman of the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides jazz and blues musicians with financial, medical, housing and legal assistance through its Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund.
Since joining JFA 15 years ago, she has raised more than $30 million and led efforts to provide emergency assistance to more than 5,000 cases annually, up from about three dozen a year when she started. The tireless Oxenhorn is a jazz angel. She and the JMEF step in when they hear about a musician, or retired musician who can’t make a rent or mortgage payment, is threatened with eviction, needs medical help or had an instrument stolen - his or her livelihood - and has no funds to replace it. The work they do is nothing short of amazing.

April will end with the fifth annual International Jazz Day's wide range of concerts, festivities and seminars around the globe. Most attention will focus on this year's Global Host City - Washington. The program's International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert is scheduled the prior evening at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. 

The concert will be broadcast as a one-hour prime time ABC television special, "Jazz at the White House," on Saturday evening, April 30. The fact that the concert is being held on the 29th in the US is not a disconnect, since April 30th will already be underway, or winding down, in Asia and Europe.

Scheduled White House performers include Joey Alexander, Terence Blanchard, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chick Corea, Jamie Cullum, Kurt Elling, Aretha Franklin, Robert Glasper, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, Zakir Hussain, Lionel Loueke, Hugh Masekela, Christian McBride, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, James Morrison, Danilo Pérez, the Rebirth Brass Band, Dianne Reeves, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Sting, Trombone Shorty and Chucho Valdés, and others.

As part of this year's International Jazz Day celebration, the Monk Institute will launch Math, Science & Music. This education platform offers free curricula, games, apps and other online elements that use music as an engaging tool to help teach math and science to K-12 and college students.  

The International Jazz Day events are designed to celebrate jazz's significant role in cultural diplomacy - as a global force for freedom and creativity. Long may that role continue.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A spirited finale to jazz club's fifth season

Al Hixon
The South County Jazz Club wrapped up its fifth season on Thursday, March 31, with a splendid concert by the latest edition of drummer Al Hixon's "Underheard Herd."

That's a fitting name for his band, which generally includes a player or two who have been under-exposed in the area, or who are so good, you never tire of hearing them.

The matinee event at the Venice Art Center teamed Hixon with ex-Ellington bassist John Lamb, pianist Dick Reynolds (longtime house pianist at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago), tenor saxophonist Jim Wellen and St. Petersburg-based trumpeter James Suggs, who moved to Florida a couple of years ago after an eight-year residency in Argentina.
James Suggs

It was Suggs' first Venice Art Center appearance since last June, when he headlined a Louis Armstrong tribute evening. He is a young man with an old soul. He digs deep into the jazz repertoire to revisit material - and imbues it with great finesse and bright, clean melodic lines. The concert paired him with Wellen, a terrific swing-style tenor player whose sound is reminiscent of a couple of relative youngsters - Scott Hamilton and Harry Allen.
Jim Wellen, John Lamb

Suggs' shining moments included the band's takes on "The Very Thought of You," Lil Hardin Armstrong's 1922 classic "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "St. James Infirmary" and an encore tease - the high-energy introduction to "West End Blues," another Satchmo-related gem.
Reynolds treated the crowd to a solo rendition of an original ballad, "Reflections," that was both pensive and lovely.

Dick Reynolds, Jim Wellen, James Suggs, John Lamb, AL Hixon