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CD Reviews - March 2009
by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

Beautiful Memory, Bill Henderson, vocals.
It’s really something to celebrate when Bill Henderson comes out with a new recording. And this one’s a corker! For decades, Henderson has been ‘the jazz musician’s singer’ who has additionally delighted a special circle of fans. At 81, Henderson sounds the same as he did at half that age. His are not Johnny Hartman type pipes, but his kinda raspy delivery is rooted in the jazz art. Bill Henderson knows no other way. He’ll grab you by interpreting a lyric’s meaning or by bending and whooping his way through a standard without ever giving it too much frosting. In a performance which obviously features an inspired Henderson and an audience solidly in his corner, Bill and the trio joyfully wend their way through some tunes that have been BH staples for years. Perhaps my two favorites were a romping blues called “Never Make Your Move Too Soon” and Duke Ellington’s little charmer, “Tulip Or Turnip.” I’ve been a Bill Henderson fan since his Veejay days in Chicago. It’s just great to see him still in the game. And still winning it.
Ahuh Productions, 2008, 53:54.

Just A Little Taste, Al Hood, trumpet and flugelhorn.
A Denver area musician and music educator, Al Hood is in complete command here and has released a beautifully balanced CD with a few surprises. First of all, there’s Hood’s fine wine tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn. Then some hand-picked tunes including “I Remember Clifford,” “Pure Imagination,” “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” “If I Loved You,” and an almost dreamy version of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” To further entice you, Hood has chosen to include a subtle, perfectly positioned string section on most tracks. And finally, there’s the perfect arranging and composing from Hood’s pianist, Dave Hanson. He contributes four originals to the CD, and they range from the engaging to the sublime (“Pastoral Blues”). There are a couple of bonuses here in the vocal debut of Al’s brother, Steve Hood. In addition, the group includes Ken Walker, bass; Todd Reid, drums; and Rich Charaluce, guest reedman. Check out this perfectly paced, exquisite recording at alhoodtrumpet.com
Self-Produced, 2008 , 66:25.

A Duet Of One, Eddie Daniels, clarinet and Roger Kellaway, piano.
Get two monsters like Daniels and Kellaway together in the same room, and you may be that sparks will fly. These guys have so much stored up in their jazz craniums that the listener must work hard just to ingest it all. This performance was recorded live before a riveted audience at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. The twosome leaves nothing to chance, opening with a bop laced “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The mood shifts with two examples of amazing musical communication in Daniels’ artistic tone poems, “Slow Dance” and “Adagio Swing.” From there the two investigate just about every musical crevice possible on “I Want To Be Happy.” The rarely heard Hoagy Carmichael piece, “New Orleans,” is played with appropriate reverence and is followed by a challenging Kellaway original. After a lengthy, near classical intro on “After You’ve Gone,” the two launch into the old warhorse in full regalia. Three more originals close out this recital quality appearance by two stunning jazz masters.
IPO Records, 2008, 70:58.

Harvest, Nina Sheldon, piano, vocals.
Why is it that not always, but invariably, the singers who most appeal to me also play something?  And usually itís piano. Think of the likes of Sarah, Carmen, Frishberg, Dorough and umpteen others. And Nina Sheldon has caught some Monk and Tristano in her piano style. Maybe even some Eddie Costa, with a below middle C solo here and there. And her singing is thoroughly jazz hip, somewhere between Norma Winstone and Jackie Cain. Her trio is completed by John Menagon, bass, and Bob Meyer, drums. To sweeten the menu, she brings on David Fathead Newman on tenor on Bobby Troup’s “Baby, Baby All The Time” and Duke’s opus, “I’m Just A Lucky So And So.” Newman, who passed away only weeks ago, may have been participating on his final recording. As for Nina Sheldon, you’re going to dig her singing, her subtle scatting and her choice of tunes. She’s the kind of intimate jazz singer you’d love to hear in a club setting ... or in your own living room.
Jazzed Media, 2009, 47:19.

The Blues And The Abstract Truth, Take 2, Bill Cunliffe, piano.
I’d imagine that many of you remember the original pressing of the classic Impulse recording from the very highly regarded composer and arranger Oliver Nelson. His tunes used strong, rich melody lines but still left room for wide ranging improvisation. Bill Cunliffe’s new take on Nelson’s work puts these compositions in the capable hands of present day LA cats who are razor sharp. The two primary soloists are Terrell Stafford, trumpet, and Jeff Clayton, alto sax. Both are stunning at every turn, and Cunliffe, as always, is an infectious, bring on the world pianist whose  skills know no limitations. The best known tune is “Stolen Moments,” by now a jazz standard. Compare it, for instance, to “Hoe Down,” and you’ll get an idea of the scope of Nelson’ writing. Anyway, these and a half dozen others give all comers a chance to stretch out. Try it on for size at www.ResonanceRecords.org.
Resonance Records, 2008, 45:58.

In The Tradition, Theo Croker, trumpet, vocals.
You gotta hand it to Arbors Records. They keep coming up with one new voice after another. And so it is with Theo Croker, just 23 years of age and more than ready for prime time. Croker is the grandson of Doc Cheatham, a trumpet ace who let us in 1997 at age 92. And Coker, either by design, genetics or both, has chosen the ebullient swing style favored by his grandfather. There’s even an eerie resemblance on the five tunes Croker sings! His quartet includes Sullivan Fortner, piano; Joe Sanders, bass; and Albert Tootie Heath on drums. Trombone maven Benny Powell drops by on “Jada” and “I Cover The Waterfront,” but this CD brings to light Coker’s sophisticated trumpet, and he plays it way beyond his  years. Good tunes here too! This impressive debut is full of life, and I should think we’ll be hearing more from Theo Croker.
Arbors, 2008, 73:16.

Marshall Arts, Marshall Vente, piano, percussion.
A new name to this Portlander, Marshall Vente has apparently established a stellar reputation in Chicago. This recording of all original music shows him to also possess a diversified approach. His basic trio includes Scott Mason on bass and Isidro Isi Perez on drums. Various guest artists appear on such suspect items as udu, shaker and the dreaded steel drums. But Vente keeps most of the extraneous stuff well under control, and his piano skills are in the foreground. And anyway, one would expect the percussive patrol on his Brazilian-like compositions, and there are several lively ones here. Vente’s original music has a spark to it, no doubt. I’d imagine he’s also very comfortable with Songbook America, and I’d like to hear him tackle some of those revered melodies next time out. For now, there’s some freshness to both his original melodies and his distinctive piano style.
Chicago Sessions Ltd, 2008, 61:18.

Live At The Freight And Salvage, Live At Pearlís, Jeff Sanford and The Cartoon Jazz Orchestra; Jeff Sanford, leader and reed instruments.
Did you ever give a thought to where that slightly wacky music in the classic cartoons of long ago came from?  Well, neither did I.  It was created by American composer Raymond Scott, who wrote these fanciful, frantic melodies based on everything from classical to Klezmer. Scott had no intention of writing for cartoons, but his exuberant creations found a home with Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Roadrunner and others. A few years back, San Francisco’s Jeff Sanford formed the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra, a thirteen piece gathering of the city’s crackerjack jazz players. The music they play is almost all by Raymond Scott. And to give you an idea of what they’re up to, consider titles such as “Dinner Music For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” “Huckleberry Duck,” “The Penguin” and “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House.” Sanford and his guys are clearly having a great time, and so will you. Want to know more? www.sanfordmusic.com Th, th, th, that’s all folks!
Self-produced, Freight And Salvage, 2004, 49:52; Live At Pearlís, 2005, 53:52.

Dream Of Sunny Days, Marc Courtney Johnson, vocals.
Male jazz singers are pretty rare these days, so when a good one comes along, it may be time to sit up and take notice. Marc Courtney Johnson, of Chicago, takes on some standards and a handful of well-written originals with aplomb, authority and creativity. For instance, try the waltz tempo “Nola’s Song.” It’s melody line would be enough for most singers to say, but Johnson nails it. Or how about the fine old standard “Invitation”?  Johnson treats it as a burner, and finds some well placed scat moments. And speaking of burners, Freddie Green’s “Corner Pocket” (which, with lyrics, becomes “Until I Met You”) is taken at a ripping tempo worthy perhaps of Jon Hendricks. Johnson also contributes several of his own tunes, and he’s especially adept on some heartfelt ballads. It’s no secret that Chicago is still one of the bastions of jazz, and the group accompanying the singer is solid throughout. Johnson ends his CD with the optimistic original, “Brand New Day.” Indeed that may be the case for him. Learn more at MarcJohnson@dreamjazz.com
Self-Produced, 2008, 66:16.


The Second Time Around, Denise Perrier, vocals.
Here’s a San Francisco bay area singer who gets it right on some dependable standards and one nearly forgotten gem, Y”ou Better Love Me,” a well written swinger that I associate with Buddy Greco. Perrier is backed by a well-honed trio, enhanced by the tenor solos of Houston Person. Her stylish presentation is worth hearing.
Self-produced, 2008, 58:07.

It Don’t Mean A Thing, Graham Covington, piano.
Are you ever in the mood for some uncomplicated, polished piano music which politely swings and thoroughly entertains? Then perhaps Portlander Graham Covington’s your man. He and bassist Dennis Caiazza form a delightful duo which features sets by Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, but also includes evergreens like “Georgia,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “That’s All” and many more. To my ears, Covington is a disciple of the Teddy Wilson school, a melody lover and mood maker.
Ivory Records, year not indicated, 76:58.

Stickadiboom. Steve Haines, bass.
This is your basic gathering of five hard bop musicians all on the same page with some riveting, high energy playing on a program of originals. Veteran drummer Jimmy Cobb is present on six of the eight selections, and he is surrounded by a new generation of jazz educators with impressive credentials. This is a brisk and breezy performance with some stellar solo work from Rob Smith on trumpet and soprano sax (!); David Lown on tenor; and Chip Crawford on piano. There’s something of a classic Blue Note feel here, and I like it!
Zoho Records, 2009, 51:38.

At World’s Edge Philippe Saisse, piano, keyboards.
I got real nervous when I read in the notes that Saisse has worked with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bill Joel, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Rick Braun, Dave Koz and other suspects. I’ll bet I’d love to hear him play piano in a legit setting, but this is simply highly-produced claptrap, complete with background voices. In one instance, I thought aliens had landed from the planet Electronica.
Koch Records, 2009.

Five Minutes More, Blue Sky 5 +2.
If you’re a fan of ‘30s and ‘40s swing, the Blue Sky 5 provides plenty of feel good material. The group is comprised of tenor, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Many of the tunes are complete with vocals, and the pianist, Craig Gilner, doubles on Freddie Green-style rhythm guitar. There are sixteen tunes in all, with highlights like “Sunday,” “Rosetta,” “Just Friends,” “Gotta Be This Or That,” the neglected “Me, Myself and I,” and some clever originals as well. bluesky.com
Groove Juice Records, 2008, 49:05.

Cosmopolis, Steve Carter, piano, electric piano.
Perhaps you ‘sound freaks’ will like what’s going on here. For me, there’s just too much electronic decor. Still, Carter’s piano is pretty straight forward on Cole Porter’s “Night And Day.” But even there one finds too many percussive bombs. The remainder of the disc, all originasl, has some pleasant moments amidst all the electric piano, fretless electric bass, and rocky tempos. I’m a poor judge of contemporary jazz, but despite my less than enthusiastic remarks, I’d imagine this is about as good as it gets. Judge for yourself.
Self-Produced, 2008, 61:11.

Up! Dr Lonnie Smith, Hammond organ, vocals.
Okay, it’s no secret that I’m not into guitar-organ funk. The smart thing that Smith did on this recording was to get Donald Harrison, alto; Peter Bernstein, guitar; and Herlin Riley, drums, into the studio. They make what is usually ordinary and bland occasionally palatable and even quite stirring on the gospel-tinged tune “Pilgrimage.” Other than that, if you’re into funk and predictable backbeat, maybe this is for you.
Palmetto, 2008, 62:08.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

TV Trio, John Stetch.
A disc of TV themes redone as jazz tunes is a nice, kitschy idea, but it’s not much more than a novelty as done by pianist/arranger Stetch. While he is a quality player, jazzing up the “Looney Tunes” theme and “The Waltons” won’t really cement him in the jazz canon. Still, for nostalgia purposes, it’s fun to hear themes from youth done with a bit of swing, like the jovial version of “Star Trek” and the playful “Rocky and Bullwinkle”. But for the most part, this disc is fluff, as “The Price is Right” would suggest, in its pure television shallowness.
2008, Brux Records, 50:00.

White Rocket, White Rocket.
Upon seeing that this was a bass-less trio of drums, piano and trumpet, I thought that this New York group might be too top heavy, but the music that came out was brash, adventurous and intriguing. Pianist Greg Felton attacks the keyboard with verve. His in-your-face style is jolting at first, but his dexterity and his ability to add bass and still retain a flourish on the high end makes him a double threat. The music borders on the avant-garde at times but never strays too far to be detached from jazz roots. Drummer Sean Carpio uses dynamics well, keeping things rolling but never too heavy. Trumpeter Jacob Wick uses polyrhythms to mesh with the percussive nature of the group, but he also adds a needed dose of melody throughout. For those who like adventures in jazz, this White Rocket is red hot.
2008, Diatribe Recordings, 60:00.

Saxolollapalooza, Frank Macchia.
This disc takes the concept of four tenors to the nth degree. Six of the top saxophonists in Los Angeles join forces to play leader Macchia’s arrangements. The only accent besides woodwinds is Peter Erskine’s smart drumming. Otherwise it’s all saxes. Eric Marienthal, Sal Lozano, Bob Sheppard, Macchia, Gene Cipriano and Jay Mason handle all the parts, from the highest piccolo tweets to the lowest bass sax blasts. The vibe is old school, with thick harmonies, countermelodies and traditional-style arrangements with a New Orleans street flair. “Down By the Riverside,” is done as a NOLA march, bringing out the playfulness of the setup. Macchia does a good job balancing the voices, letting the reeds mesh together and utilizing doubles to bring different textures, as the lush “My One and Only Love” displays. Everyone gets a chance to solo, from Marienthal’s contemporary alto licks (“Working Day and Night”) to Cipriano’s bari booms. This album could have strayed into cheesy territory easily, but Macchia’s taut arrangements and the level of musicianship keep this interesting. I would have liked to see some rarer gems and more risk taking on the tune selection, but as is this is a fun disc for sax lovers.
2008, Cacophony, 54:00.

The King of All Instruments, Charles Evans.
Continuing the sax theme is this disc, played entirely on the baritone saxophone. Evans was influenced by a range of genres, from traditional jazz to chamber music, avant-garde classical and free improvisation. It opens with a three movement piece, “On Tone Yet,” slow, methodical layering of the numerous tones of the big horn. Evans is clearly a master of his instrument, coaxing out  notes, textures and ranges not often heard from the bari. He hits many altissimo notes that most bari players wouldn’t try, and the multi-layered effect brings depth to the self-penned tunes. The only problem here is that some tunes sound more like exercises rather than compelling compositions. It’s more impressive than it is listenable. Still, for saxophiles Evans’s work is jaw-dropping.
2008, Hot Cup Records, 51:00.

Edge of the Mind, Sound Assembly.
New York composers David Schumacher and JC Sanford team up to conduct this very modern big band. The group, made up of noted New York jazzers, handles the pair’s thick arrangements with a surprising ease. The opener alone, “Breaking Point,” is denser than anything Thad Jones put forth. It has a Scofield-like quality, with Andrew Green’s distorted guitar flying over the mashed harmonies. This is muscular music, even when the feel is lighter, with sounds coming from every direction. There is some levity here, with the playful “Slide Therapy,” which rises and drops around the textural chords, but for the most part this is serious stuff. It’s more soundscape than song and melodies aren’t obvious. Singer Kate McGarry provides the only discernible melody, on the lovely “The Radiance of Spring.” But otherwise this ambitious disc gets bogged down in the over-orchestration. Not enough attention is paid to space so there is a slight listener fatigue.
2008, Beauport Jazz, 60:00.

Flat Planet, Fareed Haque and the Flat Earth Ensemble.
Eastern influences abound on this disc. The Indian chants at the top of the opening track, “Big Bhangra,” let you know that this isn’t a simple swing disc. Haque, a respected guitarist, blends Hindustani folk rhythms with groove jazz for a world music blend that is both exotic and approachable. Mesmerizing tabla rhythms mesh with sitar and violin on the meditative, “The Chant,” with Haque’s guitar work bringing east and west together. Haque’s contemporary jazz chops come to the forefront on “Uneven Mantra,” but on the more east-leaning tracks he lets his guest artists shine, as on “32 Taxis,” a rush of voice and rhythm from Ganesh Kumar over a bed of guitar. The four-part “Four Corners Suite,” pulls together the two musical worlds Haque lives in, with a nice dose of free improvisation thrown in for good measure. 
2008, Owl Studios, 70:00.

Sweet Nothin’s, Midnight Serenaders.
This Portland group travels back in time to the ‘20s and ‘30s for an upbeat mix of popular tunes, retro-originals and a touch of Hawaiian island fever. Singer and ukulele strummer Dee Settlemier does her best Betty Boop - albeit with more substance than the cartoon character - on the vocals and the band grooves nicely in the pocket, so it’s impossible to keep your toes from tapping. David Evans and Garner Pruitt capture the improvisational nature on sax/clarinet and trumpet, respectively, while the rhythms of bassist Pete Lampe and guitarists Henry Bogdan and Doug Sammons keep the swing jumping. Settlemier’s original tunes capture the era nicely, as on the torch song, “Pettin’ in the Rain,” which lets her stretch out her vocals with a fine strum behind her. Otherwise, the song choices range from popular composers, like Fats Waller and the Mills Brothers, to lesser known gems from Clarence Williams and Annette Hanshaw. This music doesn’t break any new ground, but it sure is fun.
2009, Midnight Serenaders, 54:00.

Confluence, Ken Ollis, drums.
Ollis is a Portland drummer and composer on the way up. While he’s more known for his sideman work, Ollis clearly knows how to compose. He has a sense of adventure, as on the sparse marching tempo of “Respite March,” where he lets Tim Jensen’s alto flute move the tune while he and bassist Willie Blair lay quietly under. Ollis can get a bit frenetic at times, as on the propelling “Distant Cousins,” a flurry of tones and hyperkinetic samba rhythms. Same goes for the opener, “Bum Song,” which is led by Dave Fleschner’s catchy B-3 solo. The disc is best when there is use of space, as on the light and airy, “Sitka,” which has more melody. The production is fairly sparse as done by producer Fleschner, which doesn’t allow for any softened edges, but the band is tight and on task, letting the tunes develop. Still, it can sound slightly busy at times and a little more restraint would have served the songs better. Ollis has a fine sense of harmony and melody, as displayed on tunes like “Pop Smash #1, which features Jensen and trombonist Lars Campbell sharing the lead, and certainly has a future ahead of him as a bandleader and composer.
2009, Ken Ollis , 52:00.

Indigo, Cheryl Hodge, vocals.
Hodge has a striking voice. At once playful and childlike, as on the melody of the slinky “Give In,” other times full and rich, others breathy and sultry. It’s difficult to compare her to anyone because of her pliancy. She sings mostly original tunes in the jazz fusion mode. Her style might fit better in a swing setting but it’s difficult to tell since we’re presented with several styles, sometimes within the same song, as on the title track, where once she will sing big and full-voiced then switch to a somewhat nasally, whispery delivery. Still, her range is impressive and her band, which includes guitarist John Stowell, drummer Charlie Doggett and bassist Dave Captein, helps bring out all the qualities of her vocals. Hodge holds down the piano chair well too. I find Hodge’s vocals more intriguing than pleasing but with every spin she’s growing on me.
2007, Jazz Boulevard, 45 minutes.

Ode to Consumerism, Ben Darwish Trio.
Pianist/composer Darwish recorded this vibrant disc at Jimmy Mak’s and the energy of the concert comes through, as does Darwish’s prowess on the keyboard. After a drum intro by Jason Palmer, Darwish and bassist Eric Gruber kick in the melody and challenging rhythms of the title track, an original by Darwish that’s every bit as hip as you’ll hear coming out of New York. Darwish does an exceptional job of balancing contrapuntal lines, fleet-fingered runs and heavy chords as his solo develops and the band feeds on his licks, ramping up when needed. It makes for an exciting listen, and luckily Darwish is not just youthful energy on  the piano. His “Interlude,” is a pensive ditty that utilizes space and texture before giving way to Gruber’s loping “Bass Intro.” Taking a page from the Bad Plus, Darwish takes a popular rock tune, Green Day’s “Longview,” and transforms it into a medium jazz swinger. Had I not known the tune I would never know it was originally done by a Bay Area pop-punk band; Darwish smarts it up without losing the melody, then adds a little attitude on the bridge with a needed bash of the keys. The live setting lets Darwish and company stretch out and explore the solos. His own “Out Comes Grim,” is a Latin-tinged groover that shows he is a quality composer with plenty to say. It would be nice to hear an entire album of originals since this collection of tunes shows so much promise.
2009, Ben Darwish, 48 minutes.

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