CD Reviews - March 2011 

by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

The Common Thread, Chuck Redd, vibes, drums.
Right off the bat, let me say that Redd makes me happy. He's one these jazz musicians who still honors the tradition, swings with ease and plays songs worth hearing. Really, in this age of cerebral music and original compositions that often go nowhere, Redd is a breath of fresh air. Make no mistake about it, this guy loves to play, and on his latest recording, he makes it quite clear. Joining forces with three vets (Mickey Roker, Bob Cranshaw and, on a few cuts, Houston Person) and one "newby" (pianist Rosano Sportiello), Redd explores a variety of tunes, both well known and rather obscure. The dependable standards include "I Hear Music," "Moonlight in Vermont," "Witchcraft," and "The Shadow of Your Smile." A few welcome rarities include George and Ira's nearly forgotten "My One and Only" (check it out with lyrics on Ella's Gershwin Songbook!); a beauty from the Billie Holiday era called "Some Other Spring"; Tommy Flanagan's flag waver, "Beat's Up"; and Frank Loesser's "I Wish I Were Twins," a tune rescued some years ago by Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles. These and others are played with striking musicianship, consistent swing and lotsa love from one of the nicest guys in the business,.
Arbors, 2011, 57:12.

Lost and Found, Mitchel Forman, piano.
In his later years, Gerry Mulligan began bringing young musicians into his various small groups, one of whom was pianist Mitchel Forman. I remember purchasing on album called "Walk On The Water," and one of the songs that really caught my attention was Forman's "Angelica." It's a beauty, and to see it reprised here is pure delight. Actually, it's the only song on the album that earned an alternate take. The album title refers to the fact that this bright and buoyant solo recording dates back to 1979, when Forman took time out from Mulligan's quartet, then touring Italy, to make this recording. It remained "lost" until last year, when it finally was released. It also includes two Mulligan tunes, the well-known "Jeru" and two gems from Mulligan's later period, "Willow Tree" and "Butterfly With Hiccups." Most of the remaining selections are Forman originals, and they illustrate his often stunning orchestral style of playing. I really don't know what became of Mitchel Forman after his tenure with Mulligan, but let it be said that if, perchance, this is his legacy as a jazz piano soloist, it's a worthwhile and very impressive one.
Marsis Records, 2010, 43:29.

I Remember Django, Howard Alden, guitar.
I first heard Alden in person at The Otter Crest Jazz Weekend in the '80s. At that time, Howard probably had to show ID to get a cold one at the bar. What I remember for sure is that he was a heckuva guitar player, versatile and talented. On this album, Alden plays as Django Reinhardt did, exclusively on acoustic guitar. His trio of Matt Muristeris, second guitar, and Jon Burr, bass, are joined here and there by guests Warren Vache, cornet, and Anat Cohen, clarinet. Both account for themselves elegantly. Highlights included Gershwin's "Who Cares,"Cohen's feathery presence on "I Remember Django,m" and perhaps Reinhardt's best known piece, "Nuages" (Clouds). It's one of those "you'll know it when you hear it" classics. Vache is his usual in-the-pocket cornet maven on "Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "I'm Confessin'," among others. Perhaps the biggest surprise here was the trio's medley of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I'll See You in My Dreams," both etched in marble oldies. Alden is simply a "ten" throughout. Put a guitar in Alden's hands and he can do anything with it.
Arbors, 2011, 59:46.

Aim High, Mad Romance, vocal group.
Quite a few years back, Portland jazz hero Dave Frishberg hipped me to a terrific, if little known singing group called Mad Romance. I remember at the time thinking that they were more jazz-rooted than other vocal groups of the period, and I preferred them to Manhattan Transfer and the like. This album affirms my earlier impression, as Mad Romance continues to harmonize most attractively while preserving that hard to define jazz orientation. And who can argue with choices like "Pick Yourself Up," "From This Moment On," "Yesterdays," "Nobody Else But Me," "When The Sun Comes Out," "The Thrill Is Gone" and other evergreens. The quartet also accompanies itself, with arranger and multi-instrumentalist Rick Harris sometimes sounding more than a little like Jack Sheldon on trumpet. The other members of the quartet include Lisanne Lyons and Wendy Peterson, vocals, and Greg Diaz, vocals and reeds. If, like me, you recall the close harmony and hip orientation of groups like this, you're going to like the jazz chops and even some bristling scat choruses from Mad Romance.
Self-Produced, 2010, 56:50.

I Love Being Here With You, Beegie Adair, piano.
An instrumental tribute to Peggy Lee is long overdue, and pianist Adair's bright and polite piano provides a memorable one. I wouldn't describe Adair as a riveting improviser, but she plays these melodies with flair and elegance. And what great tunes Peggy Lee always gave us. She had a hand in writing a few of them, and they've become revered standards. We can thank Peggy in part for the title tune, as well as "I Don't Know Enough About You" and a stirring ballad called "There'll Be Another Sping." Adair's colleagues include Roger Spencer, bass, and Chris Brown, drums. Together they play a number of additional Lee classics including "Fever," "Black Coffee," "You Came A Long Way From St. Louis," "Why Don't You Do Right," "Blue Prelude" and even "He's a Tramp," from the film, Lady And The Tramp. All in all, this is a finely crafted and very affectionate tribute to one of the unique and beloved singers of a great era in American music. In her words, "what a lovely way to burn."
Green Hill, 2011, 48:11.

Leaps Of Faith, Cuong Vu, trumpet.
Right off the bat, this CD looked a little unusual. How often do you see a quartet comprised of trumpet, drums and two electric basses? But then I saw some possibilities in that the group was playing "Body and Soul," "All the Things You Are" and even the Beatles anthem "Something." Well, "Bo dy and Soul" has never been so frightening. It begins with a "horror movie" sound of resonating electric basses. And Vu's trumpet has a sound fit for Boris Karloff. Then it's Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are." But Mr. Kern never envissioned it as All The Things You aren't, as the sound of doom continues. The CD's title says it all. It would indeed take a leap of faith to find anything of real musical value in this apparent effort to say something. And having said all that, I can hear promise in the sound of the trumpet player. But he, like so many today, insists that the only sound that's valid is an original sound. Don't believe it. If this is the road on which jazz is traveling, pardon me while I take a detour.
Origin, 2011, 69:02.

Trust, Sean Smith, bass.
I seem to recall Smith as one of Bill Charlap's colleagues on a few of Charlap's earliest offerings. Based on this recording, Smith has moved miles away from Charlap's musical concept. His quartet is comprised of saxophonist John Ellis, guitarist John Hart, and drummer Russell Meissner. Sometimes I dig piano-less quartets. Think about Paul Desmond and Jim Hall, or all the Mulligan-Chet-Farmer sides. But,as strong as the level of musicianship is on this CD, I miss the sense of completeness the piano lends. The twelve tunes here are all Smith originals, and much of the music has that cerebral content so frequent in today's jazz (music for the head and not the heart). I found one cut that sounded like a "real song." You know, something with a recognizable melody line and a bridge. It was called "What'd You Say?" Everybody got some swinging solo space and all came home happy. Too bad that more of the record couldn't loosen up.
Smithereen Records, 2011, 69:08.

Umbrellas And Sunshine: The Music Of Michel Legrand, Roger Davidson, piano.
All you had to do a couple of weeks ago was watch the Grammy Awards to remind yourself of just how deep into the abyss popular music has fallen. Your sense of balance is at least slightly restored when you consider the consistently melodic and lyrical music of Michel Legrand. Davidson is a fellow Frenchman who both composes and plays everything, from symphonies to tango, choral to klezmer, and a touch of jazz as well. He teams up here with busy bassist David Finck on an all-Legrand CD. You may be sure that melody (and sanity) prevails as the two interpret Legrand's compositions with ease and elegance. If Legrand had only composed, say, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," "You Must Believe In Spring" and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," his contribution would be enormous and his legacy secure. But to those three shimmering beauties, add such gems as "I Will Wait for You," "The Summer Knows," "Watch What Happens," "Once Upon a Summertime" and many more. Quite a few years ago, Sarah Vaughan did an entire CD of Legrand material, but I don't recall such an effort instrumentally until now. And in this honest and elegant performance, Davidson and Finck have honored one of the most celebrated film composers of all time.
Soundbrush Records, 2011, 52:31.

Sweet Thunder, Delfeayo Marsalis, trombone and leader.
It was back in 1957 that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn answered an invitation to compose and perform music for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Their tribute to the Bard was known as "Such Sweet Thunder." Rather than utilizing a full orchestra, Marsalis has re-invented the Suite with an octet, a significant departure from the original. In this effort, there is a distinct flavor of his native New Orleans, with alteration of melody here and there. Perhaps the most famous tune to come out of Such Sweet Thunder was "The Star Crossed Lovers," a poignant portrait of Romeo And Juliet. This is undoubtedly a labor of love for Delfeayo Marsalis, whose passion for both Ellington and Shakespeare has shaped his life. A note of interest: the liner notes include something I've never seen before — a rather unflattering letter from none other than writer and impresario Gunther Schuler. For what it's worth, I don't agree with him, and even feel that this album is a grand reprise of a major body of work in jazz history. Furthermore, I would suggest that it may be one of the premier jazz recordings of the year.
Troubadour Jass Records, 2011, 70:46.

Look To The Sky, Allan Vache, clarinet.
Don't pity the clarinet, even if, as the song title says it "gets the neck of the chicken." It's been scoffed at forever in jazz circles, but now and then an Allan Vache comes along and rights the ship. A veteran of several recordings for Arbors Records, this time out his quintet of clarinet, guitar and rhythm section is augmented on no less than six tunes by The Central Florida Chamber Orchestra. The addition of a few strings and an especially effective French horn add some extra luster to Vache's swinging clarinet. For example, "So Many Stars," a pristine melody from Sergio Mendes, gains new life with the presence of the orchestra. Adding even more variety to the recording is Tammy Georgine, whose vocals nicely decorate "Moanin' Low" and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Other winners include "Samba De Orfeu," "Long Ago and Far Away," "My Shining Hour," "Bye Bye Blues," "Alfie," "Comes Love" and more. On both swift tempos and serene ballads, Vache has it covered. So don't worry about the good ol' clarinet when it's in the hands of Allan Vache.
Concord Jazz, 2010, 67:00.

Alone At The Vanguard, Fred Hersch, piano.
Miracles do happen. Hersch has returned to good health following an AIDS-related coma of two months duration. He is without question one of the brilliant pianists of the present generation, and his renewed vitality gives us hope that he indeed will continue on that road.. This is a riveting solo performance at New York's famed Village Vanguard and begins with a tender reading of a charming pop tune from the '50s, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Hersch then moves into four of his own compositions. The first of them, "Down Home," begins with a hillbilly-ish theme, but our hillbilly turns abruptly into quite a sophisticated chap. "Echoes" is more classical in construction and lyrical to the point of resembling a movie theme. "Let's Dream" possesses a curvaceous, quirky melody line, and "Pastorale" is precisely as the name suggests, beautiful and delicate. Other entries in this stunning album include a visit to an elderly but graceful "Memories of You"; the Monk of the day, "Work"; and new attire for the Sonny Rollins classic, "Doxy." Hersch, apparently undaunted, continues his reign in the small circle of jazz piano virtuosos.
Palmetto Records, 2011, 71:22.

Bird Songs, Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone.
On most of his previous recordings, Lovano has mirrored a strong sense of affection for jazz history. On those occasions, he's honored a disparate list ranging from Caruso to Sinatra to songs of 52nd Street! This time around, Lovano puts his distinctive tenor to work on the compositions of Charlie Parker. Lovano's sound is restrained, "thick," often joyous, sometimes probing, and always masterful. I would compare it to Joe Henderson or perhaps, now and then, Benny Golson. He is joined here by Portland's Grammy Award winner, Esperanza , on bass; James Weidman, piano; and either Otis Brown III or Francisco Mela on drums and percussion. Lovano provides a fresh, contemporary look at classic Parker tunes, but keeps an eye on the high and historical realm occupied by these classics. Among them, titles such as "Donna Lee," "Barbados," "Moose the Mooche," "Lover Man," "Koko," "Dexterity" and "Yardbird Suite," among others. It all results in a very tight-knit session with all the players communicating with ease and passion. I have an idea that Lovano brings to the fore such musicianship in those with whom he plays. Bird lives! Thanks, Joe!
Blue Note, 2011, 64:55.


Imaginary Sketches, Chad McCullogh, trumpet and flugelhorn.
Seattle's Origin Records has become known as a label specializing in original music. Sometimes the concept falls flat, but frequently it works quite well. Almost all the tunes here are by members of the quartet. What it ultimately seems to come down to is that MdCullogh is a scintillating player and an authoritative presence on trumpet and flugelhorn. His colleagues — Bram Weijters, piano; Chuck Deardorf, bass; and John Bishop, drums — provide solid support for the trumpet ace. Still, I'd like to hear a bop staple or a standard ballad now and then.
Origin, 2011, 47:42.

Cosine Meets Tangent, Eddie Mendenhall, piano.
Bay area resident Mendenhall mixes up a scintillating debut CD with original compositions which "breathe" tradition. Adding vibist Mark Sherman to colleagues John Schifflett, bass, and Akira Tana, drums, results in some soaring post bop. Mendenhall's concept apparently dictates optimistic, fresh, swinging melodies, and he and Sherman are an exciting pair. The sound of this quintet is at the very heart of jazz, and this CD is a winner from start to finish.
Miles High Records, 2011, 53:48.

Three Cool Cats, Casey MacGill's Blue 4 Trio.
Three cool cats indeed. They sing in old-time harmony. Sort of. They sing lots of old time tunes. But not exclusively. They're revel in the swing era. But not entirely. What is certain is that these Seattle cats are having a ball doing what they do in close harmony. But it's not barbershop. Too hip. It's fun and funny and well arranged and old and new and cool and entertaining.
Self-Produced, 2009, times not indicated.

Amazonas, Phil DeGreg, piano.
DeGreg offers an impressive list of credentials, including Professor of Jazz Studies at University of Cincinnati. DeGreg, who has lived in Brazil as a Fulbright Lecturer, leads a sterling quintet on an album of all Brazilian tunes. Esteemed composers such as Jobim, Donato, Ellington and even Alec Wilder are all on the bill, along with a couple of DeGreg's original tunes. The leader's piano chops are vital and authoritative, and trumpeter Moises Alves also receives very high marks.
Prevenient Music, 2010, 54:27.

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Sweet Thunder, Delfayo Marsalis.
The Marsalis family has done a more than admirable job of keeping jazz's past alive and relevant. Trombonist/arranger/producer Delfayo keeps the streak going with this smart album — a recreation and retelling of an Ellington/Strayhorn project from the '50s. In 1957, Ellington and Strayhorn were invited by the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival to compose music in tribute to Shakespeare. They composed "Such Sweet Thunder," which has been re-imagined by Marsalis and a rotating crew of four to eight musicians with reverence to the original while at the same time creating something new. Marsalis's smart arrangements bring in new voices and some chordal and structural updates. "Such Sweet Thunder" is a beautifully swinging composition with a strong bass riff, telling of Othello and Desdemona, with brother Branford on a plaintive, bluesy soprano solo. Brother Jason is also on several tracks on drums, including the slightly loopy, "Madness in Great Ones." Through it all, the exacting musicianship, Delfayo's lovely trombone tone — especially on the pretty ballad, "Star-Crossed Lovers," shine through. It's a fitting tribute and fine re-telling of a historical musical document.
2011, Troubadour Jass Records, 62 minutes.

Alone at the Vanguard, Fred Hersch.
Hersch is one of the few pianists to snag a week-long solo engagement at New York's top jazz club, and this disc highlights one magical night there. Hersch is a layered pianist, able to capture an audience with the intricacy and melodic nature of his playing. He begins with a gorgeous version of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," embellishing the melody with finely placed trills and riffs. His own tunes are highlights, including the tributes to other musicians, such as the jaunty "Down Home," dedicated to Bill Frisell, or the staccato punches of "Lee's Dream," dedicated to Lee Konitz. Hersch's sound is intimate and approachable, but sophisticated. He knows that the melody comes first, but he's not afraid to accent it with edgier harmonies. It's what makes his solo work some of the most engaging by a jazz pianist.
2011, Palmetto Records, 62 minutes.

Water, Gregory Porter.
Great jazz vocalists are few and far between. Fewer still are those who can actually write tunes that matter. Porter may not be among the greats ... yet. But here is a true vocal talent that's more than just a fine voice. His tunes have an immediacy to them, as on the bluesy song, "Pretty." The Grammy-nominated "Water" displays Porter as someone with depth. His phrasing is filled with the roots of American music - blues, jazz, gospel and traditional ballads. His cover of "Skylark" is melodious and rich. His baritone voice is reminiscent of a mature Joe Williams, while his phrasing recalls Nat King Cole and Jon Hendricks. His singing is buoyant, and his song choices are smart. His cover of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" bops along with vigor, and his scatting is actually pertinent and lively. His backing musicians are strong, including pianist Chip Crawford and saxophonists James Spaulding and Yoske Sato. Porter is originally from Bakersfield, Calif., and his sense of Americana weaves its way through the water-themed disc. Porter is a vocal force of good in the jazz world.
2010, Motema Music, 61 minutes.

Waltz for Anne, Shawn Costantino.
Saxophonist Costantino has bounced between some fine music scenes — Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles — while pursuing multiple music degrees. He is an adept player and composer, though one hears an artist searching for a cohesive sound. This solo debut shows many colors — modern jazz, contemporary composition, '70s fusion, American pop and soul, and bop. There's very little here that could be deemed "straight ahead," save for the bopping "Bailout," a minor blues-based groover with a fine electric guitar solo by Andrew Synowiec. Costantino's sound is big and bold, his tone crisp and bright. It's obvious the guy can play, but his tune selection is average. The opener, a funky version of the Beatles classic, "Can't Buy Me Love," is tepid and starts the disc off on a bland note. The modern jazz pieces by Costantino meander, like the mid-tempo "Whatever You Do" and the lackluster cover of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely." There are some shining moments, though, as on the chordally rich tune, "The Transplant," and the waltzing title track. Costantino needs to get the tunes to match his playing prowess.
2010, self-produced, 60 minutes.

Sketches, Amina Figarova.
Pianist/composer Figarova's sketches are more tonal explorations and scores rather than "tunes." She paints with a wide brush, utilizing every inch of her aural canvas. It starts with the colorful journey, "Four Steps to...", a pastoral tone poem, then ramps up to a quick, jagged bop with "Unacceptable," featuring rapid-fire solos by herself and trumpeter Ernie Hammes. Figarova is diverse in her compositions, but she favors longer tones, especially in the bass, which gives more room for improvisation over the top. Still, this is compositional jazz, and there is more concentration on the colors and textures than the telling of stories. It can drift into sameness — though that sameness is quite sophisticated and international. There is enough diversity to keep it elevated, however.
2010, Munich Records, 65 minutes.

Spirals, Nordic Connect.
The members of Nordic Connect all share a Scandinavian family history, but their music is decidedly modern. Swedish pianist Maggi Olin contributes the bulk of the tuneage here, but the ensemble is led by inspired trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Jensen shares melodic duties with her saxophone-playing sister, Christine, while the rhythms are propelled by Jon Wikan on drums and Mattias Welin on bass. The sense of journey and melancholy of Scandinavia, mixed with the chordal complexity and rhythms of western jazz, makes this an intriguing and often engaging listen. Ingrid Jensen's solo work highlights the proceedings, as her soaring flugelhorn on the waltz, "Song for Inga," keenly displays. Her sister is up to the task as well, and she shows off a plaintive tone on soprano. Ingrid's electric "Earth Sighs" recalls late '60s-era Miles Davis in its spacious, reverb-heavy tonality, while Wikan's "66 Mike" soars with Latin rhythms and an open chordal plan. This is both fun and deep, and the connection makes for a band worth hearing.
2010, ArtistShare, 59:50.

Traverse, Brian Landrus Quartet.
The baritone saxophone has never been a huge feature instrument, and there are only a handful of players who concentrate solely on the giant horn. So when one comes along, I take note. Landrus is an able player with an envious tone on an instrument more known for honking than melody. With the opening tones of the title track, written by Landrus and his pianist, Michael Cain, we hear that Landrus will do the bari proud. The modern composition grooves with colorful and plentiful chord changes, and his complex melody shines. He is also a capable bass clarinetist, again bringing a warm tone to the texture of his group. Some of the tracks get overly cerebral, as on the heady-yet-aimless "Lydian 4." But he counteracts that with a lovely solo piece, "Soul and Body," which leads into a modern take on the classic, "Body and Soul," which Gerry Mulligan would have loved.
2011, BlueLand Records, 42:40.

My Garden, Nicholas Urie.
Recording a project that mixes the words and pre-recorded poems of someone as complicated as Charles Bukowski is an ambitious undertaking. Conductor-composer Urie has gathered a large band to put Bukowski's darkly metaphysical poems to music, and the result is as strange as the man who inspired them. We hear Bukowski's voice on the opener, "Winter: My 44th Year," reciting his visceral imagery — "I am sad, like porksalt ... I am mad, like a dead angel" — over a wash of dissonant tones. Christine Correa sings his words with precision daggers, as on "Round and Round," where she repeats "You have my soul and I have your money," over an equally repetitive musical phrase. It's an interesting exercise, and one where Urie's free chords and atonal darkness fit the subject. It's not easy to listen to, but it does project Bukowski's witty darkness in a sort of beat way that is wholly appropriate.
2011, Red Piano Records, 46:05.

Free at Last, Tobias Gebb & Unit 7.
The sheer number of prominent guest stars on this disc by drummer and composer Gebb made me want to tune in. And it doesn't disappoint. There is a buoyancy that is pleasing from the get-go. Saxophonist Bobby Watson bops along with tenor player Stacy Dillard on the pulsing "Blues for Drazen." Gebb's "Spitball" is an enjoyable soul jazz groover, moved along by Gebb's vibrant drumming and Ugonna Okegwo's driving bass. Mark Gross on alto and Joel Frahm on tenor also add nice solos. When the tempos slow down, as on the pensive and reverential "Free at Last," the energy and passion remain, keeping the music engaging. Finishing with a bopping, sitar-driven version of the Beatles's "Tomorrow Never Knows" shows that Gebb likes to have fun while staying true to his musical vision.
2009, YummyHouse Records, 46 minutes.

Twilight, Luis Bonilla.
Trombonist Bonilla's last album was a tad loopy, in a good way. Here, he has tempered his aggressive nature for a disc more inviting and softer around the edges. The title track is a light Latin ballad with a warm harmonic melody, shared between Bonilla and saxophonist Ivan Renta. Bruce Barth's electric piano adds chordal richness. Barth's "The Moon and the Sun" brings back some of the energy, though the driving Latin beats are still smooth. The ensemble work throughout is strong, as on the horn lines on "Vertigo" or the tight, restrained funk of "Visions." Bonilla's control makes this a more approachable album than his last, but its restraint does take away a bit of the fun.
2010, Planet Arts / Now Jazz Consortium, 53:42.