Cyrus Chestnut – Midnight MelodiesEric Reed – GroovewiseOrrin Evans – Liberation BluesAll 3 Smoke Sessions Records

by | Jul 20, 2014 | Jazz CD Reviews

For their next group of live sessions recorded at New York’s hip jazz club, Smoke, the house label has chosen to feature pianists; all bright stars on the scene: Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Reed, and Orrin Evans. Only the Chestnut is a piano trio, while the others feature horns. Each comes recommended!

Cyrus Chestnut – Midnight Melodies – Smoke Sessions Records SSR-1408, 77:31 (7/8/14) ****1/2: 

(Cyrus Chestnut – piano; Curtis Lundy – bass; Victor Lewis – drums)

Cyrus Chestnut is one soulful cat. He brings a strong gospel influence to the forefront on the straight ahead tracks found on his first live recording. It’s been a long time coming for a live CD for Cyrus as his studio dates go back 22 years.  It must be the house Steinway at Smoke that Chestnut loves so much.

Chesnut’s side men on the Nov. 22-23, 2013 were long time recording mates of the late great pianist John Hicks, a regular at Smoke. Cyrus features three Hicks’ compositions on Midnight Melodies, including a sublime extended version of “Naima’s Love Song” that features a long intro with gospel overtones. I so much loved Chestnut’s 1996 Blessed Quietness, an album of hymns and spirituals, that it brought back fond memories to revisit the mood that was set then.

“Two Heartbreaks,” another of Hick’s tunes, opens the CD. Cyrus played this number in a duo concert with John Hicks at the American Concert Hall shortly before Hicks passed away. The balance of the Smoke recording shows the impeccable taste of Cyrus as he makes his own, Milt Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove,” Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” and “U.M.M.G” as well as Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” In addition two of drummer Victor Lewis’ songs made the final cut. Lewis and bassist Lundy get their solo time as well as setting the table for highlighting Chestnut’s warm playing.

TrackList: Two Heartbreaks, Pocket Full of Blues, To Be Determined, Bag’s Groove, Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To, Chelsea Bridge, UMMG, I Wanted To Say, Giant Steps, Naima’s Love Song, The Theme


Eric Reed – Groovewise – Smoke Sessions SSR1410, 58:56 (9/9/14) ****:

(Eric Reed – piano; Seamus Blake – saxophones; Ben Williams – bass; Gregory Hutchinson – drums)

Though not recorded as a tribute album, Groovewise does find itself honoring some major piano talents whom we have lost recently: Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton, and Marian McPartland. With Clifford Jordan’s widow, Sandy, in attendance, Eric opens with an impromptu “Powerful Paul Robeson” that brings to mind John Coltrane as saxophonist, Seamus Blake, passionately honors the majestic Mr. Robeson.

Just as moving is the following “Until the Last Cat Has Swung,” in which Reed makes his statement that jazz will survive even with the losses we have faced in the last few years, as hardly a month goes by without a jazz master passing away. This loss is even more compounded when a younger lion such as Dwayne Burno suddenly dies. No, jazz will survive and continue flourishing as long as we have younger cats like Eric Reed, who both honor the tradition as well as embrace new directions for America’s true “classical music.”

“The Gentle Giant” was written for the towering presence of Mulgrew Miller. Its melody morphs from a gentle touch to a rising crescendo and back. “Ornate” was influenced by Ornette Coleman, as Reed points out that its melody was written separately from the chord changes. Christian McBride’s “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” follows and has been used by many pianists to show their love for Cedar Walton. On this version, Seamus Blake and Eric share a gentle meeting of the minds in a tender reflection of Walton.

The title track ends the session with a bluesy strut both in its intro by Reed, that is followed by the full quartet locking into a funky groove that brings down the house.

TrackList: Powerful Paul Robeson, Until the Last Cat has Swung, Manhattan Melodies, The Gentle Giant, Ornate, The Shade of the Cedar Tree, Bopward, Una Mujer Elegante, Groovewise (Intro), Groovewise


Orrin Evans – Liberation Blues – Smoke Sessions Records SSR-1409, 72:37 (8/14/13) ****: 

(Orrin Evans – piano; Sean Jones – trumpet; JD Allen – tenor sax; Luques Curtis – bass; Bill Stewart – drums; Joanna Pascale – vocals on “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”)

The opening five tracks on Evans’ CD, titled The Liberation Blues Suite, honors the devastating loss of jazz musician, Dwayne Burno. (We’re finding more and more current releases giving tribute to Burno, a testament to the love of Dwayne by his fellow musicians). Sean Jones, surely a potential future trumpet star, blows hard on the opener of the suite, “Devil Eyes.” Bill Stewart (like Matt Wilson) is a versatile drummer, handling any style of jazz. He is found upfront in the mix and setting a persistent driving beat on the hotter tracks.

“Juanita, “ written by Burno, turns down the heat, and the horns’ ensemble blend meshes well with Evans, as Orrin takes a more prominent role. “A Free Man?” is a somber ballad, written by pianist Donald Brown. Evans recites poetry exploring the black man’s role in society “after becoming free?” The last track of the suite, “Liberation Blues” crackles with energy, as Sean Jones tears into choruses that you would have found during Freddie Hubbard’s CTI period of the 1970s.

“Simply Green” gives props to musician Rodney Whitaker. Recorded in 2000 (but never released back then) it has each band member contributing. Again Sean Jones’ facility on trumpet continues to amaze. “Anysha” written by organist Trudy Pitts, for her daughter, has JD Allen ruminating on a blues-based track.  Evans’ “Meant to Shine” has robust choruses for JD to take over the limelight so generously provided by Evans.

Orrin has included an encore of the standard, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” It features vocalist, Joanna Pascale, who is a new bright light for me, as her enunciation and her emotive voice breathes new life into this well worn standard.

TrackList: The Liberation Blues Suite: Devil Eyes, Juanita, A Lil’ D.A.B a do Ya, A Free Man? Liberation Blues, Simply Green, Anysha, Meant to Shine, Mumbo Jumbo, How High the Moon, The Theme, (Encore: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes)

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the superb acoustics on all three of these live issues. They were recorded by Paul Stache and mixed with assistance of Roman Klun. Roman handles the mastering and their use of analog equipment (mixing consoles, mastering decks, and Manley tube equalization combine with newer hi-def recording techniques. I’ve reviewed nine of the Smoke issues and they have been universally well-recorded. I’m itching to get my hands on some of their limited edition 200 gram audiophile vinyl of this series mastered by Kevin Gray.

—All reviews – Jeff Krow

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