CD Reviews - February 2012 

by George Fendel, and Kyle O'Brien

Reviews by George Fendel

A Tribute To Paul Desmond, Bruce Babad, alto saxophone.
Babad is a Los Angeles-area alto player who has earned lots of attention through his contributions to The Cannonball-Coltrane Project and The Bill Holman Band. On this very accessible, live recording, he honors one of history’s alto giants, Paul Desmond. In a quintet setting with LA compadres Larry Koonse, guitar, Ed Czech, piano, Luther Hughes, bass, and Steve Barnes, drums, Babad covers the Desmond book with passion and beauty. But while the spirit of Desmond lingers nearby, Babad wisely doesn’t try to “do Desmond.” As is common with so many musicians, Paul had a stable of standards he loved to play. Babad chooses a number of these, such as “Line For Lyons,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” and, of course, Desmond’s mega-hit, “Take Five.” The program is completed with two of Babad’s originals, one of which, “B*A*B*A*D,” is a cousin to “I Got Rhythm.” Of the two additional Desmond compositions, the clear award winner is “Wendy,” a late career Desmond gem. There’s even a lovely and lyrical contribution from Fred Rogers (yes, that Fred Rogers) called “It’s You I Like.” And, incidentally, the same may be said for Babad.
Primrose Lane Records, 2011, 72:33.

Listen Here, Sue Raney, vocals, Alan Broadbent, piano.
Sooner or later this recording was destined to happen. Raney is the singer’s singer, a nonpareil interpreter of the highest-quality songs ever written. Broadbent is a miracle, a peerless pianist, arranger and composer. And, as proven with two brilliant duos years ago with the late Irene Kral, he’s a sensitive, perfect accompanist as well. Raney’s way with a lyric is intimate, delicate and direct to the heart. She delivers the message in every tune as few other singers can do. And her range is simply a gift given only to her, at least in the jazz world. So, put these two guardians of great songs in a recording studio, and you get exactly what you’d expect -- definitive versions of outstanding melodies, well known and obscure. There are 14 in all, with standards such as “My Melancholy Baby,” “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square,” “You’ll Never Know,” “Skylark,” “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” But there are lesser-known treasures as well, including Dave Frishberg’s title tune, “Listen Hear”; David Raksin’s beautiful movie theme, “The Bad And The Beautiful”; Michel Legrand’s stunning ballad, “You Must Believe In Spring”; and a Joe Raposo tune that Frank Sinatra admirers might remember, a surprise entry titled “There Used to Be a Ballpark.” From start to finish, this is one of the premier jazz works of any year. It was destined to happen. I’m so glad it did.
Sinatra Society of Japan, 2012, 55:39,

Into The Open, Sarah Elgeti, tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, percussion.
For decades, Denmark has earned a reputation for enthusiastic support of jazz. After all, Ben Webster made a beeline for Copenhagen upon leaving the United States. And he was just one of many. So it comes as no surprise that Elgeti, a native Dane, has apparently established herself as a major “name” in her country. With this CD, she is “making the move” to become a presence here in the states. The cover refers to her group as a quintet. However, there are actually eight musicians here, with several players weaving in or out of various tracks. Elgeti possesses a consistency of tone on twelve original compositions representing a variety of styles. There’s some bop, funk, bossa, ballads, and even some electronic adventures here. Melody lines, an essential for me, are not always easily identifiable, thus this comes off as music which could have been used as soundtrack material for a heavy-handed drama. A lot of effort and a stylish liner note booklet went into this project, so I’m sure there are high hopes for Elgeti. Still, I’d like to hear a bit more of a straightahead orientation.
Your Favourite, 2011, 58:55.

The Back Step, Frank Walton, trumpet.
You’ll find several of them in just about any American urban setting. They are the musicians who sacrifice fame for “home.” They’re often gifted players who would have established lofty national reputations in New York, but choose to stay in the comfortable environs they know. One example would be Chicagoan Walton, a superb hard bop trumpet player who has been a Windy City mainstay for decades. This recording finds him in the company of fellow Chicago cats Jaleel Shaw, alto sax, and Lance Bryant, tenor sax. The rhythm section is where we find the “famous” New Yorkers. This recording is also important because it includes the late James Williams, a brilliant “do everything” pianist lost to us in 2004 at age 53. This may have been the last recorded document for Williams, who is solid throughout. Also on hand were John Lockwood, bass, and Yoron Israel, drums. The tunes are mostly hard bop vehicles, perhaps reminiscent of the classic Blue Note style of Art Blakey or Lee Morgan. The one exception is the ballad, “Old Folks,” a feature for Williams. The recording date is apparently not known because there is no reference to it. Walton simply kept this material in his possession until finally releasing it. Walton, it might be said, draws from players like Morgan and Woody Shaw. He and his colleagues step it up in producing a memorable, heated session!
Self-Produced, probab

Easy To Remember, Jane Scheckter, vocals.
 If Scheckter brings to mind another female vocalist, it might be the late Annie Ross of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame. Like Ross, there’s an attractive little edge to her voice, and her phrasing and slight vibrato also amps up memories of Annie. But Scheckter’s melodic renditions seem more rooted in cabaret, while Ross was an ultra-hip jazz singer. The trio accompanying her is augmented here and there by some high velocity types that include Bucky Piazzarelli, guitar, Warren Vache, cornet, and Harry Allen, tenor sax. On an album of admired standards such as “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘til You,” “Easy To Remember,” “Will You Still Be Mine,” “I’m Glad There Is You” and such, there are some surprises which speak well of Scheckter’s “homework.” Roger Kellaway’s “I Have The Feeling I’ve Been Here Before” has all the feeling of a standard, and “A Face Like Yours” is a rarity from Victor Feldman and Tommy Wolf. But the big surprise of the set is “Stuck in a Dream with You.” This gorgeous modern ballad was written by singer-pianist John Proulx, who sang it for a live Portland audience a few months ago. A nice little bonus here is the presence of guest singer Tony DeSare on Duke Ellington’s evergreen, “I Didn’t Know About You.” Sophistication lives here!
Doxie Records, 2012, 61:31.

Smul’s Paradise, Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone.
First things first. Ya gotta love the title, a reference to the fa mous New York jazz bistro, “Small’s Paradise.” Furthermore, I’m convinced that there isn’t much of anything that Smulyan can’t impressively pull off playing that sometimes unforgiving beast, the baritone saxophone. Smulyan has demonstrated over the years a rare versatility among today’s musicians. And this time around, he gathers in a sympathetic Gotham group to produce some hip, swinging, soulful sounds. On board are Mike LeDonne, Hammond B3; Peter Bernstein, guitar; and Kenny Washington, drums. Smulyan is much more a disciple of the Pepper Adams in-your-face style than, say, the more lyrical whimsies of Gerry Mulligan or Serge Chaloff. But you know how I feel about these “organ and guitar” records. Month after month, issue after issue, they’re like the flavor of the month. The only difference here is that Smulyan and his playing mates are so “in the pocket” that this soul-drenched session comes out better than nearly any other. The tunes are mostly blues lines from contributors such as Don Patterson, an admired purveyor of this style from the past, as well as Smulyan’s own intriguing changes on a surprising combination of the changes to “My Shining Hour” and “Seven Steps To Heaven.” That sort of “craziness” is what makes Smulyan such a compelling jazz musician!
Capri, 2012, 52:43.

Reunion, Bob Lark, director, trumpet, flugelhorn and his Alumni Big Band.
A fixture for over 20 years in the music department of Chicago’s DePaul University, Bob Lark is also making some noise in the jazz world. This is his fourth CD, that I’m aware of, and each time he dishes out swinging sounds and respectful musicianship. This band is made up of many of his most striking section guys, soloists and arrangers over the last two decades. All of the tunes are Lark originals, but nearly all were arranged by his immensely talented students. While the names of the players would most likely be unfamiliar outside Chicago, there’s some sterling silver soloists among the group, and Lark himself is a player of great gifts. Recordings such as this provide proof that there’s still a place for a big band in the pantheon of American music -- especially when the writing is hip, modern and clean, and the players are obviously warm to the task. Apparently, great things are happening in the jazz department at DePaul University!
Jazzed Media, 2012, 68:47.

The Road Home, Clipper Anderson, bass.
In the case of Seattle bassist Anderson, the “road home” is the ever changing scenery between Seattle and his boyhood home of Polson, Montana, population 4,500. Anderson pays tribute to that exquisite part of the country by performing a variety of original music and a few selections from other sources. His trio includes former Portland pianist Darin Clendenin, a buoyant and highenergy player of great skill, and his versatile long time drummer, Mark Ivester. A few standout tunes include “Over And Over Again,” a lyrical and sensible melody line which is Anderson’s homage to Paul Desmond. “Say Yes Again” is the bassist’s ballad entry, and “Poinciana,” a tune “owned” by Ahmad Jamal, is rendered much in its original style. Finally, there are two selections, both rarely heard, from the Bill Evans book. “Twelve Tone Tune Two” and “Only Child” are exquisite examples of Bill’s immense creativity, and, on the latter tune, Anderson includes a poignant vocal. He has been a respected presence in Seattle’s jazz community for a long time. This overdue CD showcases his splendid trio in a variety of settings, all worthwhile and all worth hearing.
Origin, 2012, 57:56.

Cat Tales, Cat Conner, vocals.
There was a hint enclosed with this CD that it would be a goody. It was a note indicating that alto sax monster Gary Foster had recommended that Cat Conner send her debut effort to yours truly for review. When Gary says it’s good, it’s good. My only question is -- why in the heck did it take 30 years of singing to finally get a recording from Cat Conner? Right off the bat, it didn’t hurt to have the likes of veteran players George Mesterhazy, piano, Gene Cipriano, reeds, and Jim Hughart, bass, to provide their majestic accompaniment. Conner is simply a natural. No gimmicks, no show biz, no schmaltz, no frosting. There’s a direct sincerity in the way she tells the stories of these lyrics. Few can attain it, and you know it when you hear it. Her nine selections run the gamut from an ancient vaudeville opener, “Hello My Baby,” to Tadd Dameron’s all-time bebop ballad, “If You Could See Me Now,” and to a couple of Ellington evergreens, “In a Mellow Tone” and “Caravan.” A personal favorite is a somewhat neglected Leonard Bernstein diamond called “Some Other Time.” And Conner is equally impressive on “Them There Eyes,” “Embraceable You” and “I Hear A Rhapsody.” The oft-used phrase, “better late than never,” would surely apply here. Conner is the understated real deal, and I hope her CD sells 3 zillion, 9 hundred 84 thousand, 6 hundred and 17 copies!
Self-Produced, 2011, 50:15.

Welcome Home, Paul Meyers, guitar.
Are you now and then in the mood for a solo guitar recital? Because that’s the mood created here by Paul Meyers, who plays exclusively on acoutic (non-electric) guitar on this, his latest release. Recital-like, maybe. But don’t be thinking you’re in for a new age nap. Meyers is way more interesting than that as he plays with polish and precision on a menu of 11 original compositions. A few highlights include “The Opener,” a blues that Meyers crafted while working with none other than Jon Hendricks! Or how about “Eyes That Smile,” a gentle Brazilian samba. And then there’s “Hop, Skip and a Jump,” with a Monkish flavor. “Hudson Stroll,” another blues, is Meyer’s acknowledgement of his “view” from his Jersey City digs. “Changes Rhythm” is a clever title because along with scores of other tunes, it’s built on the changes to the George Gershwin classic “I Got Rhythm,” loosely referred to as “rhythm changes.” On all these and others, Paul Meyers puts forth eminent musicianship, pristine guitar skill and notable, varied melodies.
Little Chin Records, 2011, 55:45.


Anywhere But Here, Janice Finlay, saxophones, flute.
If travel ever takes you across the Canadian border to Winnipeg, you’ll want to check out local award winner Finlay. Her quintet includes multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson, who plays piano and vibes on this recording. Nearly all the material is original, and the most invigorating line was on a tune called Good Neighbours (note the Canadian spelling!) Anyhow, Finlay displays sparkling chops and lots of variety on a well-conceived album.
Self-Produced, 2011, 64:12.

Be Good, Gregory Porter, vocals.
If you like a pop flavor to your vocals, \Porter might work well for you. He seems to draw from the pop and soul arenas, but there’s definitely a jazz element here as well. Put it this way -- I liked his voice better than his material. If I was better-versed in pop music, I could probably draw some kind of comparison, but alas, I can’t do it. Jazzwise, perhaps there’s a similarity to the later efforts of Lou Rawls. Not exactly my preferred style, but what he does, he does quite well.
Motema, 2012, 57:45 , 61:06.

Pardon My French, Carol Rossio, vocals.
Portlander Rossio has always had a preference for French lyrics, and she delivers them with ease and the skill of many years of experience. Nancy Sinatra had the hit, but Rossio puts Nancy in the dust on the unlikely choice, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (in French!). On a “mini-disc” of six tunes, she works comfortably with pianist and keyboard ace Ramsey Embick. Highlights include the title tune, a Rossio original, and “Sympathique,” a lilting little melody line by Portland music maestro Thomas Lauderdale. Available at
Self-Produced, 2012, 18:22.

.Dos Y Mas, Elio Villafranca, piano, Arturo Stable, percussion.
Tight-knit duo of piano and percussion on 10 original compositions, some of which are attractive melodies. A stretch to classify this as jazz because the musicians “pay tribute to the spiritual, classical and traditional legacies of Cuba, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Spain.” Even so, there’s an attractive jazz element here that resides comfortably in what is primarily a world music realm.
Motema, 2012, 61:06

Reviews by Kyle O'Brien

Ashes to Ashes, The Wee Trio. David Bowie is a rock icon, but as done by a jazz trio, his tunes take on a decidedly different vibe, thanks to the vibes as played by this trio’s James Westfall. He mostly takes the melodies and makes Bowie’s often complex rock compositions even more intricate. It’s a difficult transition from full rock band to jazz trio, but the frenetic drumming of Jared Schonig and the inventive bass of Dan Loomis fill the gaps. And the trio does not pick any of Bowie’s major hits, so those not familiar with his catalog will not be lacking for frame of reference. “Battle for Brittain” was originally an electronica piece, and Schonig’s drum flurries take over for anything synthesized. “The Man Who Sold the World” was a 1970 Bowie tune, and here it is the most subdued piece on the album - full of intricacies, but also allowing enough space for the melody to sink in. A negative here might be Schonig’s overuse of rapid-fire fills, which can get overbearing atop acoustic bass and vibraphone. But the disc is full of intensity and whimsy, paying tribute to an artist still making waves four decades after his time on the charts.
2012, Bionic Records, 31 minutes.

Mad About Thad, Mad About Thad. The New York Jazz Initiative helped put together this small orchestra to pay tribute to one of the music’s favorite composer/ arrangers, Thad Jones. Six horns, including leader, arranger and saxophonist Rob Derke, saxophonists Steve Wilson and Ralph Lalama, trumpeter David Smith and trombonist Sam Burtis, tackle new arrangements of Jones’s already impossible voicings. For those who appreciate layers of harmonies, these are some of the most intense. Jones never took it easy on his horn players, demanding occasionally impossible leaps and rhythms. That makes these tunes difficult to play, but they are both challenging and a joy to hear. With tunes like the beautiful “A Child is Born,” to the swinging “Lady Luck” and the intertwined lines of “Elusive,” we hear Thad’s genius, his unconventional rhythms and his ability to weave the impossible into a cohesive thread.
2011, Jazzheads/NYJazz Initiative, 58 minutes.

Ten Cuidado! Watch Out! Mambo Legends Orchestra - The Former Musicians of the Tito Puente Orchestra. Latin jazz legend Tito Puente passed in 2000, but his ebullient, salsa-filled spirit lives on, thanks to this collection of his former band members. Tenor saxophonist Mitch Frohman, who played with Puente for 25 years, along with John “Dandy” Rodriguez (over 30 years) and Jose Madera (31 years), gathered together nearly 30 musicians to make this energetic tribute to their former employer. It is full of all the things that made Puente a leader in the Latin jazz field: refined musicianship, joy, energy, melody and a never-ending, danceable rhythmic base. The double-disc set features the engaging singing of Frankie Vazquez, but it’s the band’s tight versions of tunes like “Funny,” “Conmigo, Candela Brava,” and “El Luto de la Tinosa” that make this album move. The rhythm section misses Puente’s crackling timbales, but still has plenty to fill his shoes. If you aren’t dancing at your desk to this recording, there’s something wrong with you.
2011, ZOHO Music, 89 minutes.

Ryan Davidson Trio. Guitarist Davidson has made a country-infused jazz trio album. While jazz has stirred new genres into the mix, country has been left mostly at the edges. But with groups like this and Bryan & the Haggards, the line between country and jazz has blurred. Beginning with a twangy 5/4 version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” it’s an interesting ride. There are elements of fusion, rock and avant-garde classical here too. Davidson, along with drummer Ryan Jacobi and bassist Ryan Hagler, create a varied sound that is richer than you’d think three players could produce. Davidson plays with ease, especially on the more swinging tunes, such as his own “Captain Positive,” but he can turn a quick phrase and add some gritty chord punches, as on the wandering “Out of Nowhere.” His very introspective version of “‘Round Midnight” employs bends, cascading lines and a great use of space. Davidson has a nice touch on the fretboard, and knows how to utilize silence as well as western themes, but the disc could use more focus, perhaps with even more of a sustained exploration of the open plains.
2010, DebrisField Records, 41 minutes.

Almost Human, Talking Cows. Great band name from this Dutch group, with music that is nearly as whimsical. Luckily, they have the technical merit to back up the undercurrent of humor in the music. Pianist Robert Vermeulen, saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen, drummer Yonga Sun and bassist Dion Nijland are a cohesive group, and their modern jazz is varied though it all seems to fit within the mold. Vermeerssen is a nimble player, and his fortitude on the horn moves along melodies that are sometimes tonally open and fractured, as on the slinky “A Stroll for Gonso.” His staccato punches, combined with the airy drumming of Sun, makes for a bit of avant-garde fun, as on the bouncy-jagged “Dinner is Served.” Even if jazz that colors outside the lines doesn’t usually fit your listening aesthetic, the Talking Cows just might lead you to the feeding trough.
2012, Morvin Records, 64 minutes.

Conversations, Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto. Finnish jazz isn’t part of the mainstream unless you live in Finland, but this Scandinavian outpost does produce some fine musicians. Saxophonist/flutist Aaltonen and pianist Sarmanto are two of them. As one might expect from this region, the music is highly modern, somewhat free and quite rooted in classical and avant-garde movements. The two play off each other instinctually, making for a cohesive sound, even if it seems quite outside at times. Sarmanto and Aaltonen have played together for decades, including as part of the Serious Music Ensemble in the ‘70s, so the title of this double disc is apt. They truly converse, and their subject matter is continuously interesting. There are many elements of beauty interspersed with wild arpeggios, subtle interludes, and interlocking and intertwining runs. The double disc is a lot to digest, but it gives the listener two hours of quality music.
2011, TUM Records, 113 minutes.

Smul’s Paradise, Gary Smulyan. Smulyan is one of the top baritone saxophonists in the world, yet he’s under the radar in popularity when he should have the name recognition of a Gerry Mulligan or Pepper Adams. Smulyan can bop with the best of them, as he proves here on the opener, “Sunny,” which clips along to the beats of Kenny Washington and vibrato chords of organist Mike LeDonne. Peter Bernstein adds depth and fine soloing on guitar, but it’s Smulyan who really shines in this setting. The title track, by Smulyan, harkens back to earlier days, when hard bop and soul jazz ruled. But Smulyan can also play a lovely ballad, with a rich, lightly reedy tone, as he tenderly does on “Aires,” while LeDonne’s chords waver under his melody. This disc is a must for fans of straight ahead jazz and those who enjoy melodies done right.
2012, Capri Records, minutes.

Tempo, Tania Maria. The veteran Brazilian pianist and vocalist takes an intimate turn with this duo disc, backed only by master bassist Eddie Gomez. Her deep voice is highly expressive, and her range goes from guttural utterances to smooth, easy soaring. Her delivery – singing in Portuguese -- is soothing and occasionally rhythmic when she scats along with her percussive piano playing, as on the toetapping “Sentado a Beira do Caminho.” There are several covers, including a breezy “A Chuva Caiu” by Jobim, but Maria’s own tunes are just as compelling, including the boogie of “Yeah Man,” and “Dear Dee Vee,” instrumentals which show off her melodymeets- rhythm piano. Laid bare on this disc, her copious talents are on full display, and Gomez helps bring out the best.
2011, Naive Records, 48 minutes.

Lucky’s Boy, Pamela Hines Trio with April Hall. Massachusetts resident Hines has considerable talents as a pianist and composer, though many of the original tunes on this disc sound derivative of tunes you’ve heard before. While most music is derivative of something, you’ll immediately wonder if you’ve heard these catchy melodies before. As sung by vocalist April Hall, they are highly accessible and hummable, but upon hearing tunes such as the opener, “Dreamerman,” you’ll wonder if it’s a cover tune. That’s a testament to good melody writing, but also raises a question of source inspiration; only “Porter Please” is a clear nod to its inspiration, Cole Porter. After getting over the familiar sound of these unfamiliar tunes, though, you’ll find an enjoyable disc of piano jazz played well, with lovely vocals by Hall.
2011, Spice Rack Records, 44 minutes.

The Love I’m In, Kate Reid. The sprawling suburban mass of greater Los Angeles would seem to be no place for jazz, but there is much musical talent in the area. Reid is a talented L.A. area vocalist and pianist who chairs the music department at Cypress College; she’s also a session musician. Her easygoing vocals leave the listener relaxed and comfortable, and the sultry nature of her swinging delivery makes for an intimate experience. The fact that she has plenty of L.A. heavy hitters backing her -- including Ernie Watts, Steve Reid, Chris Conner and Steve Barnes -- makes this melodic album of classic love songs a vocal jazz album worth knowing.
2011, Kate Reid Music, 59 minutes.