Jazz CDs, Pt. 1 - November 2002

I'm starting with the two newly-recorded CDs that impressed me the most this month...

Jason Moran, solo pianos - Modernistic - Blue Note 72435-39838-2 6:

Wow, What an accomplishment for 27-year-old pianist! While Moran got some attention for his ivory-tickling with Greg Osby, he rockets to the top of the heap of jazz keyboardists with this magnificent solo album. The title comes from the opening track by the pioneer stride pianist James P. Johnson, You've Got to Be Modernistic. It travels from boogie-woogie to extremely modernistic climes. Then it's ten more mostly originals by Moran except for one by - wait for it - Robert Schumann! He also creates an eloquently soulful pianistic version of Planet Rock - originally and amazingly a rap hit of 20 years ago. Moran varies the grand piano sound with something credited as "mini piano," which sounds electronic. Plus he turns to the prepared piano technique pioneered by John Cage in "Gangsterism On A Lunchtable," in an effort to recreate the percussive sounds of sixth-graders banging on their school cafeteria tables. Good clean piano sonics too - don't miss this one! Tracks: You've Got to be Modernistic, Body & Soul, Planet Rock & Postscript, Time Into Space Into Time, Gangsterism on Irons, Moran Tonk Circa 1935, Passion, Gangsterism on a Lunchtable, In a Fortress, Gentle Shifts South.

Ben Allison - Peace Pipe (Allison, bass; Mamadou Diabate, kora; Michael Blake, sax & clarinet; Frank Kimbrough, piano, prepared piano & Wurlitzer; Michael Sarin, drums & percussion; guests: Peter Apfelbaum, tenor sax; Tomas Ulrich, cello) - Palmetto Records PM2086:

Having recently reviewed an earlier hi-res disc from Allison I was all primed to hear more of his un-pigeonholeable music. I suppose its somewhat easier for rhythm-section players to be wide-ranging in their musical styles, but Allison really is an explorer extraordinaire. There's a multicultural slant to having Diabate aboard - playing the loveliest of all the varied African instruments - the kora harp from Mali. But it's not a gimmick - it all works together beautifully. What comes up is nearly always unexpected but fits in perfectly. Tracks: Third Rail, Slap Happy, Peace Pipe, Dakan, Goin' Back, Disposable Genius, Music is Music, Realization, Mantra.

- John Henry

Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar, 1939-1941 - Reissue produced by Michael Brooks & Michael Cuscuna - Columbia Legacy 65564 (4 CD set):

Most jazz guitars attribute their basic style of playing to either one of two pioneers - Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt. I've been a Django nut forever but I enjoy several modern guitarists who trace themselves back to Christian. Yet the only recording I had of the young guitar legend was a Columbia reissue LP of extremely poor sonics with some of the tracks he did with Benny Goodman. This was vs. the stacks of original Reinhardt material available. So I paid little attention to the short-lived (died at 25 of TB) black player who gave a real voice to the new electric guitar. Till now.

Discs 1 thru 3 are all of the Benny Goodman Sextet, which had two other great black players aboard - Fletcher Henderson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes. The Master Takes are always at the beginning and the Alternate Sides at the end - thanks, Columbia. I'd forgotten how similar this stuff was to one of my favorites, Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five. Wish I'd been old enough to sit around in clubs and experience this sort of small group swing first hand back then - I wus born too late. Disc 4 has the sides by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra plus the Metronome All Star Nine and All Star Orchestra. There is also some rehearsal material, with starts and stops and conversations that probably interest some people, but I'll skip them, thanks. 17 of the tracks here have never been issued before in any form, 27 of them were only issued in Europe or Japan previously, and all are hugely upgraded into noise-reduced 24-bit remasters. Other members of the All Star Nine organized by Metronome magazine in l940 included Harry James, Jack Teagarden, Benny Carter, Jess Stacy and Gene Krupa, so you get plenty more than just Christian tracks here. Walter Becker speaks in the 70-page booklet of Christian's fresh and joyful improvisations that never failed to swing madly. B.B. King also says he doesn't think there is a guitar player who has come along after him in the field of Jazz, Blues or Rock that hasn't been influenced in some way by the genius of Charlie Christian. He was not the first to play jazz on an electric guitar - that had occurred a year earlier - in l938. But Christian forged a style that converted most jazz guitarists to electric instruments and at the same time paved the way for the coming incursion of bebop.

The Goodman small group and big band hits as well as more obscure tunes are here: Flying Home, Stardust, These Foolish Things, Seven Come Eleven, Air Mail Special, Breakfast Feud, Wholly Cats. The original 78s used came from several different collections and it's quite amazing how present-day digital noise reduction techniques, when skillfully used, can resurrect material that was painful to audiophile ears previously. Usually even the normal groove noise is not heard unless you run the volume way up. And it never sounds like the engineers attempted to goose up the fidelity with over-equalization or crude dynamic expansion - everything sounds perfectly natural and well-balanced. (I'll never forget those early Sonic Solutions attempts on both jazz and classical reissues - ugh!). In addition to the fine essays and "Christian testimonials" in the booklet, it's full of great photos of Charlie in various bands and informal poses. And the packaging is imaginative - the CDs are stuck into soft foam slots in a box designed to look like a mini early Gibson guitar amp. This would be a perfect holiday gift package for that jazz fan on your list - you'll know he doesn't have anything this good even if he owns every last previous Christian reissue.

- John Henry


Gary Burton & Makoto Ozone - Virtuosi - Concord Jazz CCD-2105-2:

What a classy way to get into the current crossover thing! No wet T shirts here! It's just Burton on vibes and pianist Ozone and 11 compositions by mostly classical composers. They play it fairly straight though there are some tasteful improvisations not that different from, say, Mozart's own on-the-spot improvised cadenzas to his concertos. There's no rhythm section here to jazz things up a la Jacque Loussier's Play Bach. And it's glorious. All-star vibist Burton explains in his liner notes that over 30 years ago he had recorded the first movement of Ravel's The Tomb of Couperin, multitracking both vibes and piano parts himself. He also reports a planned collaboration with Samuel Barber on a work for vibes and string quartet, but Barber couldn't get the hang of jazz improvisation and it didn't work out. Burton apologizes in his notes for the gall of a couple of strictly jazz players thinking they can play classical. He's far too modest; this is fascinating stuff uncovering different angles on these familiar pieces. Tracks: The Tomb of Couperin: Prelude (Ravel); Excursions I (Barber); Prelude 8, Op. 32 (Rachmaninoff); Milonga (Cardoso); Second Prelude (Gershwin); Sonata K20 (Scarlatti); Impromptu (Zez Confrey); Concerto in F: III (Gershwin); Lakme Medley (Delibes); Capriccio II, Op. 76 (Brahms); Something Borrowed, Something Blue (Ozone).

- John Sunier


Two sparkling big band CDs, both with jazz-on-public-radio connections...

Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra - SRJO Live (Clarence Acox & Michael Brockman, co-directors) Origin Records 82399:

The SRJO is serving a similar need to that filled by Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (and is probably the equal of that acclaimed organization) - playing some of the finest work created for the American big band, both historic and newly-composed. Some of the historic compositions and arrangements have been lost to history, and in such cases co-director Brockman listens to the recordings and painstakingly transcribes the music note-by-note for the orchestra. Their library and repertory has thus grown as a result of adding all these previously unpublished works. The band members obviously work hard at this labor of love in emulating the styles of the various composers/arrangers and bands. Some of their solos are exceptional; dig the two different trumpet players on Concerto for Cootie and The Maids of Cadiz respectively. This collection - all taken from live concerts by the band - concentrates on Ellington and Basie, but there are also tracks from Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, and a transcription from a l934 78 cut by the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. The closing 13.5 minute Elmer Bernstein movie theme is heard in the original arrangement by Oliver Nelson recorded in l962. Though recorded at several different locations over a few years (by recording engineer and public radio jazz host Jim Wilke), the sonics match up well and display good balance and plenty of spatial specificity. Tracks: Happy Go Lucky Local, Stomp It Off, Maids of Cadiz, Jumpin' At the Woodside, Concerto for Cootie, Better Get Hit in Your Soul, Isfahan, Nasty Magnus, Blue and Sentimental, Caravan, Walk on the Wild Side. (If you have trouble finding, visit www.srjo.org)

The Mike Vax Jazz Orchestra - BigBandJazz.Net - Summit Records DVD 329:

This album grew out of a Berkeley, CA non-profit group founded in l977 known as Friends of Big Band Jazz, who encourage you to visit their web site whose URL is the title of this CD. There is also a connection with the San Francisco area's jazz public radio station KCSM. Vax is the lead trumpet and Flugelhorn in the band and tells us that among its members are ten music teachers, seven full time musicians, an auto mechanic and a college music student. The organization also donates to young people's music events, presents programs for schools, and offers scholarships. Their style is versatile if anything - standards like Ellington and Kenton, ballads, swing, Latin stuff, symphonic pieces, bebop, even a hip-hop flavored number. The sonics on this 14-track outing are gangbuster - showing that multi-miking and multi-tracking can work really well if done properly. 40 separate tracks on six synced digital recorders were used in the studio. Interesting contrast to the above CD - not necessarily better but definitely a different sonic approach! There's also a vocalist - Cami Thompson - on a few of the tracks: Royal Rendezvous, Love Theme from Hair, Sunday Variations, Hoofin,' I Concentrate on You, La Virgen de Macerena, That Old Feeling, Let's Face the Music and Dance, Naked Gun, The Way He Makes Me Feel, Vax Attacks, Ice Nine, Blues in Hoss Flat.

- John Henry


Two varieties of European jazz exploration next...

Misha Alperin - Night (Alperin, piano, claviola; Anja Lechner, cello; Hans Kristian Kjos Sorensen, percussion, marimba & voice) - ECM 1769:

Alperin, a pianist hailing from the Ukraine, had a commission to write some music for a jazz festival in Norway. He noted that such works nearly always were big productions with lots of bombast; he wanted to move in the opposite direction, and that's what "Night" certainly does. Alperin feels night hours are when one's need for self-presentation subsides and you don't need to prove anything to anyone. He wrote his music, contacted his other two players, and they met for the first time only two days before the festival event. Both the cellist and percussionist come from the classical music world rather than jazz. Alperin felt the percussionist would have a wider dynamic that his music required. This is careful music of generally great quietness and intimate sounds, though sometimes things break loose - such as in Heavy Hour - which has wild yelling/shouting but somehow works very effectively to create a certain unhinged mood. Another track features a long-running wood block ticking that almost forces thoughts to focus on such elemental concepts as life, death and change. This is Alperin's fifth ECM recording, including a recent one with John Surman. Tracks: Tuesday, Tango, Adagio, Second Game, Dark Drops, Night, Heavy Hour, Far Far...

Joe Zawinul - Faces & Places - ESC Records 03679-2:

Viennese jazz pianist and composer Zawinul - first in the music spotlight as the pianist in Cannonball Adderley's band - presents here a 14-track collection of his originals which blend jazz and world music. There are vocalists on many of the tracks but no lyrics are provided; some seem to be vocalise but I couldn't be certain. Instrumentation is greatly varied, often combining Zawinul's synth sounds with native percussion. Indian guitarist Amit Chatterjee is heard on many of the tracks. The note booklet has six panoramic black & white photos which are tied in with specific tracks in some way I couldn't deduce. Tracks: The Search, All About Simon, Introduction to Tower of Silence, Tower of Silence, The Spirit of Julian Adderley, Familiar to Me, Cafe Andalusia, Good Day, Barefoot Beauty,l Rooftops of Vienna, Borges Buenos Aires Parts 1 & 2, Sisaya, East 12th Street Band.

- John Henry


More world music jazz, leaning toward the Caribbean...

Ruben Gonzalez, piano - Chanchullo - WorldCircuit/Nonesuch 79503-2:

Gonzalez came to the attention of most jazz lovers via his participation in the wonderful Buena Vista Social Club film and recordings. This new album, recorded both in Havana and London, is not just the pianist in solos but basically an entire band with a series of steaming salsa and lovely ballads. Gonzalez certainly doesn't sound anything like an 83-year-old pianist who had been retired for a decade without even his own piano, prior to his dropping into the studio where the Buena Vista Social Club album was being recorded. This is a set of 11 Cuban dance numbers in the Son style lit up by the vivid and imaginative solos of Gonzalez, who mixes in parts of various classical piano exercises as well as other Cuban songs we would appreciate more if we knew them. Tracks: Ghanchullo, De una manera espantosa, La Lluvia, Central Constancia, Quizas quizaw, Choco's Guajira, Si te contara, El Bodeguero, Isora Club, Rico Vacilon, Pa' gozar.

Andy Narell (with Mario Canonge, Michel Alibo, Jean Philipe Fanfant) - Sakésho - Heads Up HDCD 3069:

This is the debut album (pronounced "sah key show") of a new quartet mixing music of the Caribbean with the traditional jazz quartet structure. In addition to Narell's familiar steel drums, we have Canoge on keyboards and vocals, Alibo on double bass and vocals and Fanfant on drums and vocals. It's a fun sound, with hints of African, French, and world music in general, but all centered around the bouncing percussive timbre of the steel pans. No printed lyrics, but who needs 'em? The disc, like all Heads Up CDs, is Enhanced with a video of one of the selections, and it's cross platform so we Mac users can enjoy it too. I wish other jazz CDs would add this feature; for that matter SACDs have the ability as well but nobody has used it yet. Even a slide show on one of the selections would be welcome. It's also HDCD-encoded, so since I have the proper decoding I can be smug about how much better sound I'm eeking out of this old 44.1 format before we give up on it.

- John Sunier


Two bassists of very special note up next...

Ray Brown/Monty Alexander/Russell Malone - Telarc Jazz CD-83562:

This was veteran bassist Ray Brown's final recording session, in March of this year, before his recent death. Telarc has provided a double-disc special for the occasion with the bonus CD at no extra charge featuring a retrospective from their catalog of some of Ray's best previous tracks as chosen by his producer. That disc includes three tracks from the Super Bass series, two from his 1993 gem BassFace, and a hot St. Louis Blues with Ahmad Jamal from "Some of My Best Friends Are the Piano Players." Alexander has been recording like mad for Telarc recently and Malone is a superb young guitarist I've only recently grown to appreciate - he appeared on three previous Ray Brown CDs. Ray has probably played on more recordings than any other bassist in the biz, and he comes up with something just right no matter what the tune might be. Any CD that starts off with my favorite jazz tune can't possibly be a dud: Django, Fly Me to the Moon, Blues for Jr., Honeysuckle Rose, Compassion, Dexter's Dex, I Just Can't See For Looking, One for Hamp, Don't Go, Look Who's Here, You Can See.

Andy McKee, bass and NEXT - Sound Roots (with Ed Cherry, guitar; Alex Foster, sax; Ryan Kisor, pocket trumpet; Billy Kilson, drums; guest Hamiet Bluiett, baritone sax) - Mapleshade 04432:

Just noticed this has a l997 date on it. So why am I covering it now? Who knows, but it's worth it any time. Bassist McKee played with the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine as well as the Mingus Big Band and his sextet swings furiously. Like Mingus, McKee never strays far from the blues, but he doesn't sound anything like Mingus. Of these ten tracks one is by Miles and another by his guitarist Cherry - all the rest are Mckee originals. One of his passions is to try to nail the intensity of good fusion jazz using strictly acoustic instruments, and he's done it. The very natural and ungimmicked sound in which Mapleshade prides itself - recording direct to two-track analog at 15 ips - aids that acoustic intensity. Kizor's pocket trumpet brings back shades of another Cherry. Tracks; Top Hat, All Blues, Sound Roots, Andrea, 56 Blows, Inner Circle, Blues Interrogation, U-Turn, Hilltop Stomp, In a Perfect World.

- John Henry

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