CD Reviews - December 2013 

by Jessica Rand

Liquid Spirit, Gregory Porter.
What do you get when you cross football, musical theater, and Nat King Cole?
Answer: The booming, baritone voice of Gregory Porter. Everything this guy touches turns to gold. After an injury, he was forced to stop playing sports, but was allowed to keep his football scholarship and became a jazz singer with the extra time on his hands. He grew up listening to his minister mother’s collection of Nat King Cole records, from which he drew fatherly advice. But gospel was the thread that held his religious family together. He’s also a veteran of musical theater, and his written a musical of his own.

Why the biography for a record review? Because it’s his history with musical theater, football, gospel, and Nat King Cole that provides the strength behind his voice and music. There’s a sturdiness, a solid foundation, throughout this CD that’s rooted in a funky backbone. The vocals are deep and handsome, grounded in a strong gospel soulfulness.

Porter’s debut for Blue Note Records falls somewhere between R&B, post-bop and soul jazz. The title track might make you want to sway back and forth, get your bones moving and hands clapping. You feel like you’re in church, but the really fun kind. “Musical Genocide” has that cool-school feel, while “Brown Grass” is a bittersweet love ballad, a play on the “grass is greener.” Perhaps the best song on the record is “Movin’,” with its sunny horns and Porter’s contagious smile. At times, this album picks you up with an adrenaline-charged whirl, at others, it invites you to reminisce about lost loves.
Blue Note, 2013.

Live Today, Derrick Hodge.
What the heck is happening to Blue Note?
The direction of this iconic jazz label raises the issue of what jazz is and how its always changing.

Whether it’s the last eight years of Robert Glasper, or the recent Blue Note debuts of Jose James and Derrick Hodge, there’s one common thread linking the label’s new sound: the unmistakable beat of hip hop. That, in part, is because of Blue Note’s eccentric and innovative president, Don Was, who accidentally fell into the job in January, 2012, after a breakfast with the head of Capitol Records.

Was takes Alfred Lion’s 1939 Blue Note mission statement literally. It read, in part: “Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive.”

Hodge’s latest recording authentically incorporates a mishmash of musical genres, including funk, hip hop, rock and electronic, creating a new sound that is becoming fairly identifiable with Blue Note. What appears to be Was’ strategy is to sign artists that are easily relatable to the next generation of jazz fans, which will ensure Blue Note’s success in the future. And it sounds great!

“Gritty Folk” is the gem of the album, with warm trumpets reminiscent of Blue Note’s earlier days and backed by a contemporary, funky rhythm section. “The Real” sets the tone for the rest of the album by combining jazz, spoken word, hip hop, samples, and looping. The title track features the rapper Common, rhyming with a strong message over a jazzy background. Appearing as a sideman is pianist Robert Glasper, and Hodge has appeared on several of Glasper’s Blue Note albums. If there’s one thing that remains from the about Blue Note past, it’s keeping the best jazz talent of the day immersed in each other’s projects, just like in the golden days.
Blue Note, 2013.

The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, Aaron Diehl.
Art Blakey was known for spotting young talent, and it turns out his protégé, Wynton Marsalis, is going to be known for the same. Blakey, constantly scouting for new Jazz Messengers, found Marsalis, and now Marsalis, arguably the most respected trumpeter of his generation, has spotted the young and immensely talented pianist Diehl.

I propose that Diehl and vibraphonist Warren Wolf, his partner on this CD, re-name themselves the “Post-Modern Jazz Quartet,” because they are a completely unique, 21st century version of the Modern Jazz Quartet. These Generation Y-ers are just as sophisticated, talented and dapper as John Lewis and Milt Jackson were, but without being a direct throwback to the past. There’s nothing old-fashioned about them.

Diehl’s debut record, “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative” (the title means “the story of a man who wears fine, tailored suits”) swings with all the sophistication of the MJQ. The record guides you through Diehl’s narrative, opening with the gentle, mid-tempo Prologue, and moving through the hills and valleys of ballads and swingers, nurturing the blues, and emphasizing the ensemble. “Stop and Go,” one of my favorite tracks, is a dialogue between Diehl and Wolf, each racing for the finish line, then slowing down while their wrists catch a breath. If Art Tatum and John Lewis had a love-child, it would be Diehl’s command of every individual piano key on this tune. The narrative closes with the warm, feel-good, bluesy “Epilogue,” leaving you to wonder what the career of young Diehl will bring to the future of jazz.
MackAvenue, 2013.

Say This To Say That, Trombone Shorty.
When you were eight years old, did you have a jazz club named in your honor?

New Orleans native Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, did — because of his mastery of the instrument at such a young age. He started playing professionally when he was five, and today he embodies the living, breathing spirit of New Orleans. His third record for Verve is no exception.

The jazz-rock-funk opening title track overflows with youthful energy. It’s a big song with bigger horns that will send you parading down the alleys of New Orleans. As the scent of gumbo draws you into the French Quarter, mid-way through the album you’ll discover “Vieux Carre,” the anthem to the heart and soul of New Orleans. We get a glimpse of Andrews’ talent as he plays horns and drums on this number. The album cools down three-quarters of the way through with “Sunrise,” an easy afternoon groove reminiscent of Kenny Burrell or Grant Green.

The vocals of Andrews, Raphael Saadiq and Cyril Neville are peppered throughout the record. Andrews is a terrific horn player, but the vocals detract from the rest of record. The best tracks are instrumentals, and there’s enough to save the album, and fortunately, it closes with “Shortyville,” a jaunty, funk number with Andrews playing all the instruments, with the exception of Saadiq’s bass.

This album offers a fresh take on the classic New Orleans groove and spirit that is sure to flourish into the future with musicians like Andrews rising to prominence.
Verve, 2013.

Gouache, Jacky Terrasson.
When you think of John Lennon, the words “haunting” and “alluring” don’t usually come to mind. But it’s the best way to describe Terrasson’s exquisite cover of Lennon’s “Oh My Love” on the French pianist’s new record.

Making a guest appearance is the girl with the golden voice, Cecile McLorin Salvant (look for a feature story on the remarkable young singer in the next issue of Jazzscene). Combined with the unique phrasing of Terrasson’s piano, Salvant’s sensual, timeless voice adds a bittersweet edge to a normally positive, happy song. The duet may well draw a tear of empathy and send you home with goosebumps and a burning desire to put the song on repeat for the next three hours. The Latin-tinged “Je Te Veux” is a cover of a tune by modern classical composer Erik Satie and also features the vocals of Salvant. She’s clearly inspired by Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker, but she’s no copy-cat, and she sounds as contemporary as anyone.

Covering pop music in jazz is nothing new. Terrasson just takes a fresh, 21st-century approach to this concept, exploring pop music that’s as diverse as his French-German-American background.

He transforms Justin Bieber’s “Baby” from middle school pop to an upbeat, jaunty jazz tune with hand clapping and swinging piano, while his take on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is as sassy and dramatic as the title suggests. Terrasson’s original compositions are not to go unnoticed either. The mid-tempo “Happiness” is solid piano trio work with a hint of classical composition. From start to finish, this album is as diverse as the spectrum of jazz, but tied together through the sophistication and personality of Terrasson’s piano.
Sunnyside, 2013.

Eggun: The Afri-Lectric Experience, Omar Sosa.
“Kind of Blue”? The connection to Miles Davis’ seminal record is just one of the mysteries we hear on this Omar Sosa tribute album. In fact, this might be the only tribute to a record without a single song from the original. Does it work? The answer is yes.

“To create a tribute,” Sosa explained, “I transcribed all the solos from the disc [“Kind of Blue,” with Davis, Adderley, John Coltrane and Bill Evans] and took small fragments from each solo to create a melody based on the ones already played by the masters. Then I had to recreate those melodies with a harmonic accompaniment that was different from the original tracks, but at the same time respecting the Omar Sosa essence of the pieces.”

Thus Sosa explores “Kind of Blue” as an untraditional tribute with his original compositions. Although we don’t specifically hear “Freddie Freeloader” or “Blue in Green,” Eggun is a multilayered album inspired by the original work and meticulously performed by the Cuban-born pianist.

The album showcases Sosa’s Latin roots as you’ll hear on “So All Freddie,” nearly the same tempo as the original. “Alternativo Sketches” is a clear extension of “Flamenco Sketches,” but with its sound rooted African folk music rather than Spanish folk. Sosa says when he plays, he’s communicating with his ancestors and spiritual guides. Some of the mystery comes out in the soft piano, somewhat incomprehensible lyrics, and dissonant saxophones of “Calling Eggun,” a call to the dead, and maybe directly a call to the spirit of Miles Davis.

Sosa’s album hints at the tracks on “Kind of Blue,” though it’s not to be taken literally; his music is merely a suggestion. This album communicates with the ghost of Miles Davis and his method is a sound that Sosa and Davis share: introspective, strikingly thoughtful jazz music.
Ota Records, 2013.

Marcel Marceau praesentiert Swing Im Bahnhof, Clarke-Boland Sextet.
Imagine a once-in-a-lifetime party, taking place on the Rhine, showcasing some of the best art in the world, and presented by a French mime.

Far from silent was the evening in 1963 when Marcel Marceau presented the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Sextet, a session finally reissued 50 years after the original performance. Kenny Clarke, a major innovator of bebop, is now considered one of the top jazz drummers in the world. Like so many black American jazz musicians in the mid-twentieth century, Clarke was an expatriate living in Europe, where the environment was more hospitable, there was less racism, and jazz was treated as art. Teaming up with Francy Boland, a classically trained Belgian pianist, diminutive and shy but hard-working and talented, they became one of the most famous big bands to emerge outside of the United States.

The music of this Sextet, which features Jimmy Woode on bass and vocals (another American expat in Europe), Fats Sadi on bongos, Joe Harris on vibes and percussion, and Sahib Shihab (another expat) on flute, is sophisticated, swinging and Latin-tinged. The performance conjures images of well-dressed, well-mannered, slightly crazy 1960s European artists coming together for a night of passionate creativity and beauty. For me, the image combines the image of Andy Warhol’s lifestyle and art, and David Lynch’s films, brimming with rich velvets, fleeting moments, mime-style face paint, bossa nova, and hints of unhinged, twisted darkness. Lynch would have been inspired by this performance.

The version of Dizzy Gillespie’s standard, “Con Alma,” is perhaps the best I’ve heard, maybe because at least half of the members played with Gillespie and Boland was his arranger. The tune is sometimes done in a slow, haunting fashion, but this version is fast-paced, exotic and intense. This recording succeeds in transporting you to an evening on the Rhine, but it also makes you feel like you’re at a party in Cuba.

Jimmy Woode’s vocal on “Born to Be Blue” is subdued and highly original. His voice is imperfect, but it’s full of emotion and soul. You believe him when he gently croons a melancholy love song. Best of all is the flow of the record. The songs glide into each other without pauses, impeccably crafted to creating an experience of mood, image and emotion.
Juno Records, 2013.

New Music From Your Own Backyard - Various Portland artists.
When it comes to jazz, Portland artists are creating a distinct and contemporary Northwest sound.

There’s a lot of common elements that tie these albums together. The musicians are young, eclectic in their musical tastes, and all reside in Portland (with the exception of recent transplant to London, Andrew Oliver). These artists run the gamut of influences — world sounds, funk, straight ahead, classically-inspired music, guitar rock, and electronic beats. But the common thread is their open-mindedness and willingness to take risks.

Jazz is a spectrum of constantly evolving sounds. It’s a melting pot, reflecting the era in which it was created. Right now, we’re all witness to an undeniable, increasingly globalized world. It’s fascinating that forward-thinking, highly eclectic, young jazz musicians are also doing this with their music, probably without much thought. They are pulling from everything they’ve been exposed to.

The Ocular Concern probably does this the best. It’s made up of pianist Andrew Oliver, the founding member of the Portland Jazz Composer’s Ensemble, as a co-composer, along with the skilled guitarist, Dan Duval. Drummer Stephen Pancerev, vibraphonist/percussionist Nathan Beck, and saxophonist Lee Elderton round out the ensemble.

Their new album, “Sister Cities,” is literally inspired by 21st century globalization and based on Portland’s sister cities. The title track is a magnificent suite with classical string arrangements, a cello which flows into electronic beats with jazzy vibes, and an Argentine bandoneon. It ends gloriously in hand-clapping and violins. It’s not a mish-mash of sounds, but a beautifully arranged four-part suite. “Ghost Town City Council” is an eerie piece that conjures images of old westerns. The classical string arrangements and bandoneon add a helping of creepy.

The heavy punk rock guitars at the end are like a chase scene on horseback, with rifles and cowboys everywhere. The song is an adventure, and maybe scoring films will be a future project for The Ocular Concern. That piece flows directly into “The Island Milonga,” a song that’s just as dramatic but with a latenight, summertime beachy feel. It’s directly inspired by a subgenre of Argentine tango called “Milonga,” both a style of music and dance. It will make you move.

Ryan Meagher (pronounced “Marr”) is Portland’s newest transplant by way of Brooklyn. He’s already making headway in town and just released his first record on the Portland Jazz Composer’s Ensemble label, “Tango in the City of Roses.” He has called his music “modern jazz for the indie rocker,” and if you’re a Bill Frisell fan, this is something you’d enjoy.

His song, “Hard Times,” hearkens back to images of the Old West: a song for waltzing in an old grange hall — before the arrival of Peter Epstein’s bluesy saxophone, transforming it into a sophisticated jazz song. “Empty Spirits” opens whimsically with George Colligan’s classically-inspired piano. It’s a graceful, delicate piece which shifts into a light swing. Colligan’s piano and Meagher’s guitar provide a rich compliment to each other. As a tango dancer, I can tell you that the title track is un-tangoable, but its an elegant jazz number with dark, minor notes and a late-night mood. Is tango a theme here with the PJCE?

George Colligan’s new record, “The Facts,” is the most straight-ahead of the bunch. Hard at work this year, this is the first of Colligan’s 2013 releases. Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw opens the record with youthful vigor, while Colligan’s piano supplies the backbone on “Blue State” — a tune about the perceived liberalism of the state of Oregon (both Colligan and Meagher are New York transplants). The classically-inspired ballad, “Missing,” shines during the bowed bass solo by Boris Kozlov. Colligan also arranged a jazzy version of Joe Jackson’s early 1980s new wave hit, “Steppin’ Out.” It swings more and substitutes Shaw’s bold saxophone for the original’s vocals.

Trio Subtonic’s new record, “Night Runners,” might be their best to date. It’s the funkiest album on this list, anyway, with a direct indie-rock appeal. The record begins with the title track, easing the listener in with the mellow, solo keyboards of Galen Clark. Jesse Brook slowly enters with the drums, and it’s a full-fledged funky jam by the time BIll Athens’ bass is added to the mix. “How Do You Feel” should be a radio hit. It has all the markings of a great pop song, with a catchy beat, cool rock guitars layered with keyboards, and it’s jazz! The rough-around-the-edges, Nirvana-inspired grunge guitar sounds are rooted distinctly in the Northwest. It’s an adventure, in part because of Bill Athens’ driving bass line.

Nick Drake’s haunting ballad, “Way to Blue,” shifts the record to a more traditional piano trio approach. The tune begins in a melancholy spirit, but picks up highlighting the hopefulness in the lyrics of the original. A high quality release from these local jazz-funk fusionists.