CD Reviews - February 2014 

by Jessica Rand

In With Lassy, Timo Lassy.
What do food and jazz music have in common? The same synonyms are used to describe both.

Cooking, sizzling, and scorching are just a few of the words you could use to describe Finnish saxophonist Lassy’s new album. In many ways, the music is classic, straight-ahead jazz, but with a modern spin and a touch of soul. The CD uses classic, analogue recording techniques and embraces the spirit of bop. And it stays rocking through nearly the entire album, until a late-night ballad, “The Good Life,” closes take set.

Though maybe not yet famous in the United States, Lassy is a staple on the Helsinki jazz scene, and he is gaining traction abroad. A member of the grooving Five Corners Quintet, Lassy continues in that tradition with his third CD as a leader. Drummer Teppo Mäkinen, from Lassy’s old days in the 5CQ, has composed a few of the numbers, and leads the mellow groove, “Shootin’ Dice.”

The album opens with “Teddy the Sweeper,” a soulful scorcher with a drum/sax blastoff. “Where’s the Man,” is classic jazz rooted in American Gospel music. Think of Lee Morgan or Stanley Turrentine, and get ready to clap your hands.

The sizzling, sassy soul of “It Could Be Better” is my personal favorite. It’s spicy and it burns in the way that only good souljazz can. “The Good Life” is the closer. Simmering down into a ballad, the first few bars indicate you’re about to listen to the soundtrack from Amelie before the saxophone lullaby kicks in. If you like 1960s soul-jazz tenor saxophone, this is a must-hear.
Schema Records SCCD, 2013.

Lost Tapes, Modern Jazz Quartet.
Imagine never-before released recordings from your favorite classic jazz ensembles, recordings lost in the vaults for decades. Jazz Haus Records, or Südwestrundfunk (South West Germany’s public radio) has been slowly dusting off these old tapes, or Lost Tapes, as they call them, re-mastering and releasing them. They are high-quality recordings that haven’t been heard since they were made, and one of the most recent releases is the lost recordings from the Modern Jazz Quartet. from their early days.

Nobody knew the art of quiet seduction quite like the Modern Jazz Quartet. The brainchild of pianist John Lewis, the MJQ formed in 1952. Sophistication and elegance was their game, playing third-stream, chamber jazz inspired by baroque music of the 17th century, sporting tuxedos and, and even choreographing subtle moves. Still, individually they were mostly a product of Dizzy Gillespie’s hard-swinging bands, and as graceful as they were, they all had the souls of swinging jazz men.

Though they were active through the 1990s, these recordings are from 1956-1958, all recorded in Germany. “Ralph’s New Blues” is a Milt Jackson original and opens the album, featuring Jackson’s improvisation and a call-and-response between him and Lewis’ piano. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a traditional song often associated with Christmas, exudes quiet elegance and refinement. During the improvisational component, you forget about it ever having anything to do with holidays. It transports you. “Bluesology” is fast and sizzling, followed by the MJQ’s well-known standard, “Django,” a tribute to Django Reinhardt that’s a bit sad but sweet.

Close your eyes and listen to the gentle swing of this record. It’s an incredible collection from their early period, when Lewis’ vision was just beginning to solidify. If you’re an MJQ fan – or even if you aren’t yet – this album is worth picking up.
Jazz Haus Records, 2013.

Saturday Morning, Ahmad Jamal.
Ahmad Jamal has been playing the piano for 80 years, and by this point he has surely earned the title of “master.” The refreshing thing about Jamal, though is this — while most people become calmer in old age, he’s gotten jauntier, more playful, and more risk-taking as he’s aged, and his earlier works now appear more reserved. The more he records, the more the fire ignites under his fingers.

Similar to his 2012 album, Blue Moon, this new recording explores, punctuates and dramatizes the spaces between the notes. It is a masterpiece, reminding the listener of the early trio days, but with a newer groove.

“Back to the Future” is the opener: a jaunty tune, playing with the percussive rhythms of Manolo Badrena, formerly of Weather Report. Bassist Reginald Veal is spotlighted on the tune with a fiery solo, and Jamal’s flighty fingers and signature space-time contrasts are evident on his cascading solos.

Duke Ellington and Paul Webster’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” is played gracefully, as Jamal occasionally slips in the catchiest parts of Strayhorn and Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” Again, Jamal’s piano cascades and dances with tenderness, punctuated by the subtle drumming of Herlin Riley.

“One” has an infectious groove, originally a tune Jamal recorded in 1978. Long-time fans will love this bonus. The title tune is delightfully minimalist with a light groove, soothing and trance-like. There is a shorter, three-and-a-half minute radio version of the title track at the end of the record, and he constantly repeats the same phrasing in the extended version, but it doesn’t become repetitive because of Jamal’s playful approach.

Seasoned and accomplished, 83 year-old Jamal has proven himself once again, showing that skill and ability only improve with time. Be sure to catch him this year at the Portland Jazz Festival, in the Newmark Theater on February 21.
Jazz Village, 2013.

The Stars Look Very Different Today, Ben Allison.
Though educated in a conservatory and distinctly a jazz bassist, Allison probably spent a lot of time listening to Sonic Youth, the Pixies and Nirvana. In fact, the album combines these grunge-rock sounds with spaghetti-western, Space Cowboy, cinematic flare. And the album title is taken from a line in David Bowie’s 1972 album, Space Oddity.

Where some jazz musicians listened to funk and soul and fused it harmoniously with their version of jazz, other folks listened to rock and neatly folded it into theirs. We often see this here in the Northwest, an area known for grunge and indie rock. Younger musicians from Portland combine these various genres, much like Allison. See the November 2013 issue of Jazz Scene.

The surf-tinged, jazzy space odyssey, “D.A.V.E.,” is perhaps another David Bowie reference. Steve Cardenas’ heavy guitars and Brandon Seabrook’s melodic banjo create the sense you’re on a journey, while Allison Miller’s drums act as gravity, pulling the listener back to earth. There’s also a bonus of cool, 1980ssounding space effects mixed in towards the end of the song.

“The Ballad of Joe Buck” is a dark, dramatically slow tune. It conjures images of horses ridden through a moon-lit ghost town in the Southwest, playing banjo while running away from something terrible. Seabrook shines on the banjo and the songs burns, slowly.

“Neutron Star” is spacey, melodic, and like most of the album – accessible. In fact, this may be Allison’s most accessible album to date, and he’s definitely turned up the heat on creativity by providing a theme this time. This album may turn your jazzskeptical friends into jazz-lovers, or at least spark their curiosity.
Sonic Camera Records, 2013.

The World Comes to Jazz

Although jazz respects its history, it’s equally important to be innovative. Jazz has always been kind to musicians who blaze new trails and incorporate other genres. The world has embraced jazz in part because highly-skilled musicians from all over are able to incorporate into it elements of the music of their homelands.

In this round-up of international jazz, we look at artists from Ethiopia, Argentina, and one who resides in Portland, Oregon, but belongs equally to France, England and Peru.

Sketches of Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke.
Percussionist and organist Mulatu Aststake is known as “The Godfather of Ethiopian Jazz,” a title he’s earned after nearly 40 years of creating accessible, creative, and engaging jazz made with local ingredients. On this latest recording, he evokes Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” calling on the works of his idols, Davis and Gil Evans. Both suites showcase the music of the countries which inspired them. While Davis and Evans created a romantic suite steeped in Western jazz, classical music, and Andalusian flamenco, Astatke peppers his with Western jazz wrapped within the folk traditions of his homeland.

The opening track, “Azmari,” is centered around the traditional single-stringed “masinko” lute, creating a bold, Ethiocentric opening. “Hager Fiker” is the centerpiece of the record: a traditional Ethiopian song, it’s catchy, with plenty of room for Astatke’s vibraphone. Throughout, the spirited vocals of Tesfaye and Fatoumata Diawara add an engaging folk quality.

The result is a catchy, slightly funky and intense blend of accessible and creative Western jazz with African singing, rhythms, drumming and instrumentation from a seasoned composer.
Jazz Village, 2013.

Buenos Aires Otra Vez, Pablo Motta.
Maybe more than any other international music, tango straddles the line between an ethnic tradition and jazz. Traditional Argentine tango had it’s heyday in the golden age of the 1920s and ‘30s, but in the last 15-20 years, there’s been a major resurgence. You can tell by attending any tango dance hall today, and then compare the big crowds to what you’d find 10 years ago. In part this is because of the brilliant tango/jazz master, Astor Piazzolla, who gave it a fresh sound and give life to the music again in the 1950s-1970s.

With the rise in popularity of tango in Argentina and abroad, younger tango musicians are popping up everywhere, including the Argentinian bassist Motta, who is from just outside of Buenos Aires but has lived in Los Angeles since his youth.

Much like Piazzolla, Motta’s new album straddles the line between jazz and tango. He takes his cues from traditional tango, but he uses odd meters and improvisation, creating a jazz-saturated, Nuevo tango. “Contrabandeando” is the opener, playfully teasing the listener with strange timing, syncopation, and silly sound effects. “La Fuga del Kia” is an opus from this sextet: rich, intense, dramatic – a dance of percussion, violin, and bandoneon.

Unlike many tango composers, his work appeals to both the jazz and tango communities. A lot of danceable tango doesn’t have enough jazz elements, and the balance he attains here is difficult to achieve. Hopefully, we’ll be hearing more from Motta in the future.
Tangocontempo, 2012.

Libre, Martin Zarzar.
Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Zarzar was born in Lima, Peru, moved to England in his youth, then moved again to France, finally settling in Portland at age 15. His earlier experiences culminate in a deeply eclectic love of much of the world’s ethnic music.

Zarzar is perhaps best known for being a decade-long, core member of the Portland-based crossover ensemble, Pink Martini. He has recently released his second album, Libre, as a leader. Don’t call it jazz, because it’s not. But it made the round-up because jazz is just as much a part of what makes up this delightful recording as French music, reggae, and Peruvian music. He sings in Spanish, English, and French, and plays a variety of instruments.

“Bed Bugs,” is my personal favorite, a fun, Django Reinhardt inspired, gypsy-jazz number with playful sound effects. The recording includes both an instrumental and vocal version of the song, and the liner notes explain that it’s a about a beg bug epidemic in Paris and New York, but more subtly can be interpreted as a “remark on the decadence of the luxuries of the very wealthy in times of economic hardship.”

He also rediscovers Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,” which he croons in French, and Cuban composer Osvaldo Farrés’ “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” which he sings in Spanish. A fingerpoppin’ guitar version of “Blue Skies” rounds out the jazzier tunes. If you’re a jazz purist, don’t bother. But if you like local music that’s fun, not overly produced, and well-done, give it a try.
Self-produced, 2013.