CD Reviews - December 2005
by George Fendel

The American Jazz Institute Presents One Day with Lee, Lee Konitz with the Mark Masters Ensemble. Veteran saxophonist Konitz is the guest artist on this big band album that pays tribute to Konitz's legacy. Arranger/composer Masters assembled a fine studio band to back Konitz and arranged some of Konitz's tunes for the large ensemble. Konitz has evolved over the years, and his explorative improvisations have become a bit less ambitious, or maybe it just sounds that way. He now sounds incredibly laid back, sitting on phrases and milking the altering tonality. It's the same Konitz, just mellower, especially as backed by an ensemble that plays it fairly safe too. Masters took several of Konitz's early solos and rearranged them for the sections. On "Lover Man," his up-front new solo is followed by the orchestrated version of a solo he did with Gerry Mulligan's quartet in 1953. It's a nice contrast and Masters did a great job of capturing the flowing essence of Konitz's style. Other than that, though, the disc seems like a slightly sanitized studio recording. A little too clean, a little lacking in guts. Fellow saxophonist Gary Foster, sharing solo time with Konitz on "Dream Stepper," and "Palo Alto" actually makes one wish we heard more of his silken tone to contrast with Konitz's freer, harsher sound. Capri Records, 2004; Playing Time: 64:09, ***1/2.

Do It, Poncho Sanchez. The famous and prolific conguero is joined by yet more all-stars on this genre-blending Latin-heavy disc. Hugh Masekela, the famous South African vocalist, makes the first guest appearance, singing his trademark gruff vocals on "Ha Lese Le Di Khanna," a blending of Sanchez's signature propulsive rhythms and African tonalities. But it's Tower of Power that brings out the funk in Sanchez, backing him on the ultra-funky "Squib Cakes," which is in turn infused with Sanchez's polyrhythmic nature. One wonders why Sanchez would ask a full horn section (and one of the world's best, it may be said) and band to back him when his own group is already so exceptional, horns and all. But perhaps it's to bring out another side of his personality, an east bay grease to his Tex-Mex Latin power. Whatever the reason, the two Tower of Power tracks certainly kick hard, but then again, so does the title track done with Sanchez's own group. A fun listen either way. Concord Jazz Records, 2005; Playing Time: 59:08, ****.

Memoire, The French Sessions, Vol. 2, Joshua Breakstone, guitar. The French love their jazz, which may be a reason that Breakstone recorded two albums there. This one is a stripped down trio recording with Louis Petrucciani on bass and Christian Ton Ton Salut on drums. The sound is straight ahead, giving Breakstone a chance to display his fluid and clear hollow-bodied guitar sound. The album is a tribute to some of France's best composers, which makes the appearance of "Autumn Leaves" a little puzzling. Whereas most of the tunes are lesser known as well as some of Breakstone's originals, the too-familiar melody doesn't try for anything new, a truly standard standard. The gorgeous and sparse "Nuages" shines here, as does the pretty "Chanson de Delphine." Both Ton Ton and Petrucciani are subtle-yet-powerful, but the overall effect is more texturally nice rather than inspiring. Breakstone is a very good guitarist, but maybe going French won't exactly create that Eiffel Tower magic. Capri Records, 2005; Playing Time: 62:42, ***1/2.

Dexter Calling, Dexter Gordon, saxophone. Lest people only remember Gordon from his brilliant acting turn in "'Round Midnight" here is an example of the expressive tenor man from the height of his Blue Note days. This re-release of the 1961 sessions with a phenomenal band that included Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, is just what the doctor ordered. Big fat tones, sexy sounds and post-bop rhythms that remind of the immediacy of the time are all present. The disc starts off with Gordon's slinky, bluesy "Soul Sister" that shows off that emotive sound that Gordon became famous for. Then it's Drew's smoking "Modal Mood" where both he and Gordon get to fly over the keys in fast-bop fashion. The sound even over 40 years later, still pierces with true clarity. One feels like they could reach over to the speaker and pretend to be in the first row at a live concert. Jones pushes the tunes along with vibrancy while Chambers remains a rock. But it's Gordon's cool personality and big sound that punctuate the proceedings, and the remastered sound is amazing. Younger musicians should take this disc as a cue. EMI/Blue Note, 2004; Playing Time: 43:14, ****1/2.

Doin' Allright, Dexter Gordon. Unlike the previous re-release, this one, also from 1961 sessions, is a little more on the mellow side. This time, Gordon is joined by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Horace Parlan, bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood. It's a Gordon that most people know - big tone, expressive attention to the melody, plying the lower register with a smooth vibrato. On the ballad, "You've Changed," Gordon is at his best, with a passionately melancholy delivery of the lovely tune. Gordon's own bouncy swing, "For Regulars Only" gets two treatments, with he and Hubbard sharing the melody. The alternate take at the close of the album, is actually the better of the two. And the addition of "I Want More," which was not on the original disc, is a great bonus. Still, as back to back discs, I'd take "Dexter Calling" over this one, for both song choices and production values. EMI/Blue Note, 2004; Playing Time: 53:42, ****.

One Flight Up, Dexter Gordon. By 1964, Gordon was in Paris, and this Parisian session does not showcase Gordon and his group - Kenny Drew, Donald Byrd, Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and Art Taylor - at their best. Gordon sounds like he's trying to be more Coltrane-esque, modal and longer-winded. But he also sounds tired, even jet-lagged. The opening track, Byrd's "Tanya," is a mid-tempo modal swinger that clocks in at nearly 20 minutes. Gordon builds his solo, but it never seems to reach a climatic moment. Drew's funky "Coppin' the Haven," is a more complex tune and more intriguing that the opener, and Gordon sounds like he's into it more. The tender "Darn That Dream" is more suited to the attitude of the disc, where tired and melancholy comes off beautifully haunting rather than just tired. The inclusion of Gordon's bouncy "Kong Neptune," not included on the original record, is welcome. The groover is the liveliest thing on here. But that nor Rudy Van Gelder's fine remastering can save this from being just a middle of the road Gordon album. EMI/Blue Note, 2004; Playing Time: 48:08, ***.

Faluas do Tejo, Madredeus. Portuguese vocalist Teresa Salguerio's vocals are indeed beautiful, especially sung in her native tongue, but the music by her group, Madredeus, isn't jazz. It's more like Portuguese folk music, influenced by pop and classical styles. Guitarist Pedro Ayres Magalhaes and Salguerio's group is 20 years into its existence, and the Iberian blues called "fado" is a theme throughout their music. Call it Portuguese torch music. Even if you can't understand the lyrics, you can feel the passion and the longing for Lisbon in her high, lilting voice and also in the wonderfully picked nylon stringed guitar. That said, its cohesion also makes it a very one-sided album, but a pretty one at that. EMI/Blue Note, 2005; PT: 43:46, ***1/2.

Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Lionel Hampton. Recorded in 1989, this radio show has been put on disc, and that's a very good thing. Hampton is aged to be sure, but he still displays that ebullient personality and zest for music and life that made him a star in the first place. Hampton chats with McPartland about his life, which is fun to hear, but it's the music that makes this so good. Hampton plays vibes with McPartland's elegant piano on tracks like "Teach Me Tonight" and "How High the Moon" while the two do a lovely piano duet on "Midnight Sun." Hampton even sings with his gravelly voice, on a cute version of "Sweet Georgia Brown." This intimate setting lets people see both the positive and tender sides of Hampton. A great glimpse into a wonderful personality. The Jazz Alliance, 1996; Playing Time: 58:43, ****.

Live Session, Cannonball Adderly with Ernie Andrews. Andrews was a new voice and an exciting singer on this 1962 and 1964 recording. He sings here with passion and a great blues and jazz sense. He thrills the crowd with his bluesy rendition of "Next Time I See You." He's best at the blues, when he can belt and play in a fun sense. He doesn't have the depth as much for ballads, as on "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco." It's on blues-based tracks, like "Ten Years of Tears" that Andrews shines. And backed by Adderly's fantastic band, with brother Nat, a pre-Weather Report Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums, Andrews is tops. The addition of three previously unreleased tracks, including a vocal version of "Work Song," adds to the feeling of "lost gem" this disc uncovers. Blue Note, 2004; Playing Time: 42:35, ****1/2.

Time Was - Time Is, Ray Barretto, congas. Maybe it's excitement that's been missing from jazz lately. Not that there's anything wrong with a beautiful melody and a sophisticated sense of swing, but excitement is why people made jazz America's popular music in the 30s and 40s. Barretto brings back a thrilling sense of rhythm and accessible music while retaining jazz's forward-thinking mentality. The title is appropriate. The Time Was part realizes the music and struggle that came before Puerto Rican immigrants in New York. That sense of urgency, of people fighting for acceptance in a changing world while clinging to things they held dear, like language and music, comes through in Barretto's tapestry. Also though, the new face of jazz is here, with chords that go outside then weave back in, and polyrhythms that sear the ears with immediacy. Barretto is the rock that holds this thing together and pushes it forward at the same time. His conga playing is vibrant and deep, not unlike Poncho Sanchez but with more serious jazz grit. His band is up to the task. Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and saxophonist Myron Walden draw listeners in with their pointed playing, while the rest of the group sizzles behind them. This is one of those albums that grabs hold and won't let go. Kudos to Barretto for bringing back the edge that was so desperately needed in jazz. O+ Music, 2004; PT: 54:24, *****.

A Tribute to Tony Bennett, the Jimmy Amadie Trio with Phil Woods. It seems odd to do a tribute album to someone barely a decade older than yourself, but that's what Amadie, in his late 60s, has done here. And to start off with a tune by yourself that was never recorded by the legend, we'll that's even stranger. But I assume pianist Amadie knew what he was doing, and the first track, "The Thought of Losing You," sounds like something that, if it had lyrics, might be a decent Bennett tune. And Phil Woods, with his reedy tone and great bop sense, wraps himself around the tune with comfort and energy. And the relaxed feel of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" is exactly what Bennett would do. But for the life of me, I just can't get with the concept as loosely based as it is here, and the cryptic liner notes don't really get at it either. Suffice it to say, this is a decent album with Phil Woods as a guest, so just throw out the concept and consider this a nice straight-ahead jazzer. TPRecordings, 2003; PT: 53:50, ***1/2.

The Season, Jane Monheit, vocals. The way this disc starts off, it seems as though Monheit has gone over to the dark side. A light R&B version of "This Christmas" sounds sappier than the original. Jane, there are enough melismatic R&B/smooth jazz belters out there. Please don't join them. You have one of the best new voices in jazz, so to throw it away on fluff like this seems like such a waste. Luckily, she veers back to jazz on a fun big band arrangement of "The Man with the Bag," where she gets to show off that great bouncy lilt. Her version of "Moonlight in Vermont" is a beautiful jazz ballad, and the restrained bop of "Sleighride" is a pleasure. So why does she have to start the disc off with such drivel before realizing she's a jazz singer? Darned good question, but for fans, the openers may prove off-putting enough to seek out another yuletide option. Sony/Epic, 2005; PT: 41:27, ***.

Christmas Songs, Diana Krall featuring the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. This is Krall's first try at holiday music, and compared to Monheit's outing, it's a world better. She makes no bones about this being a jazz album, and backed by one of the best big bands working today, she's in great company. She does traditional with a swinging twist. "Jingle Bells" is a great punchy version, punctuated by horn blasts and an infectious rhythm. Krall's voice sounds more confident than ever, and her piano playing is always tops. But she should lay off the scatting. It doesn't suit her and doesn't lend anything to the arrangements. She does a lovely version of "The Christmas Song," and lushly orchestrated "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," by Irving Berlin. Krall brings a class to these holiday classics, which automatically vaults it above most of the tinsel-driven holiday drivel. Verve, 2005; Playing Time: 44:51, ****.

40 Years, A Charlie Brown Christmas, various artists. Did anybody beg for this album to be made? Is this something that we should have to hear? Why would smooth jazzer David Benoit take a timeless holiday classic in Vince Guaraldi's wonderfully innocent soundtrack to the Peanuts Christmas special and give it over to today's contemporary, R&B-lite and smooth jazz stars? What could possibly come of such a bad idea except bad music, which is what this is. Maybe it should have been titled "How to Slaughter a Holiday Classic." Whatever the motivation to make it was, it should have been squelched by the label. To make matters worse, there are tracks here that weren't part of the original, including Benoit's "Just Like Me," sung in its sappy worst by Vanessa Williams. Most egregious is the Peanuts theme as done by Dave Koz and his synthesized crap, followed closely by "My Little Drum" by Rick Braun. The only positive points go to Eric Marienthal for doing a reverential version of "Christmas Time is Here," and to the pared down version of "Skating." Otherwise, this is useless. Peak Records, 2005; Playing Time: 43:53, *1/2.

Boogie Woogie Christmas, Brian Setzer Orchestra. If the typical Christmas fare doesn't agree with you this season, try a rock-n-roll version instead. Former Stray Cats frontman Brian Setzer sets up a slicked-back presentation of holiday favorites done in the best big band boogie woogie style, and it perfectly suits any fan of rockabilly or big band jazz, or both. This is fun stuff, with rockin' swing rhythms to fare like "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland." Setzer also channels Elvis on "Blue Christmas," and even goes cute with "Baby, It's Cold Outside," a duet with Ann-Margret, really. The high-energy band gets a chance to shine too, as on the swinging version of "The Nutcracker Suite." The only one that doesn't bring something new is his "O Holy Night," which sounds almost exactly like the Engelbert Humperdinck version. Otherwise, this is a great holiday romp. Surfdog Records, 2004; Playing Time: 48:04, ****.

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