Jazz CDs, Pt. 1 of 2

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones - Little Worlds (with Victor Wooten, bass; Future Man, synth-axe drumitar; Jeff Coffin, tenor and alto sax) - Columbia C3K 86353 (3 CDs):

What a package! - packed with a dizzying variety of little worlds of music just like the title says. The quartet led by the world’s best-known banjo player was all set for a European tour in September 2001 when 9/11 hit. They cancelled and decided instead to convert some rooms over Fleck’s garage into small studios and work on their next album together. They hadn’t intended at first to have guest performers, but along the way a number of musical friends turned up there and they included them in the mix. Although from his very first recording Fleck has never fit the mold of the 1920’s or folk music banjo picker, this time the 27 tracks spread across these three CDs reach an entirely new level of electicism and crossover. This is not your bargain-counter jazz fusion by any means!

Fleck and his diverse cohorts draw from such sources as jazz (all types), bluegrass, hip hop, Gaelic folk music, classical and world music. Among the special guests they invited in to contribute their musical ideas were Bobby McFerrin, Branford Marsalis, Sam Bush, The Chieftains, Jed Clampett and others. Even a theremin virtuoso, Pamela Kurstin! That fit in perfectly with Future Man’s (actually Victor’s brother) penchant for cobbeling together his own electronic instruments such as his drumitar. The seamless transitions from acoustic to electronic-based instruments adds a unique overall timbre to the sound of the Flecktones. The opening track introduces a wonderful cross-breeding of Jamaican ska and Scottish reels. I take its title, Bill Mon, to refer to someone dunning one for unpaid bills - at least the moody sound of it conveys that to me. The next track, The Ballad of Jed Clampett is a song by Flatt & Scruggs which first inspired the 15-year-old Fleck (named after Bela Bartok!) to pick up the banjo. Bobby McFerrin and Divinity do the rap-style vocals on this one. (By the way, I personally can’t stand rap or hip hop and I loved every minute of this album!)

There’s not space to go on with every one of these 27 amazing tracks; you’d best discover them yourself. None of them is filled to the 80 minute limit - Fleck felt it was better to give fans more bite-sized versions on each disc and never intended one to always listen to all three at once. If you’re just discovering Bela Fleck or are of limited means, there is a condensed single-CD version of Little Worlds also available. Some have compared the Flecktones to Weather Report and their popularity with audiences is similar, but they are so much more than electronic flavored fusion jazz. Like the Grateful Dead, they allow their fans to tape any of their live performances and trade them with others. (I saw someone doing just that at a recent Flecktones appearance; using a highly expensive ORTF mic setup on a high boom and recording to his iBook. But he was hundreds of feet from the stage and in front of one of the PA speakers...) Speaking of sonics, the fact that this album was not exactly recorded according to audiophile purist standards doesn’t seem to affect it’s sonic impact. Bela himself plays his banjo from a room elsewhere in his house. The quartet has played, toured, and creatively cooperated in writing new material for so long that such isolation during recording doesn’t seem to throw them a curve. Purchase here

- John Henry

Gianluigi Trovesi Ottetto - Fugace (Trovesi, composer/clarinets/alto saxophone & his octet) - ECM 1827:

Another amazing musical mix, though more solidly in the small group chamber jazz bag. The Italian reed player is a consumate arranger and composer and a decade ago founded his octet as a vehicle for his work. It has a dizzying variety of sounds, and no wonder with the lineup of instruments doubled on by some of the ensemble, including cello, electronic percussion, synth, and electric bass. The sound may remind one of a particularly Italian take on the Ellington or Mingus small groups with two basses, but there is also an influence of the instrumental approaches of Giovanni Gabrieli and Vivaldi. Trovesi also loves Scarlatti, and though there is no credit listed for a harpsichordist, snippets of harpsichord sounds are heard throughout the CD courtesy of a keyboard sampler.

I’m frequently impressed by how far into free jazz realms some of today’s most creative musicians can delve and still retain the interest of those of us - who like myself - find, say, about three minutes of Cecil Taylor to be plenty, thank you very much. Some of the tracks that especially entranced me: Dream of Orpheus - alludes to themes in Gluck’s opera, but by the sound of it this particular Orfeo seems to be searching for his Eurydice in a French Quarter basement jazz club. Like several of the selections here, it vassilates back and forth between a traditional jazz sound and that of the chamber jazz works of the 1950s such as Annotations of the Muses.

African Triptych - Ellingtonia, with lots of brass in arrangements sometimes harking back to Gabrielli. Siparietti - there are four of these peppered through the album; the word means curtain and they consist of a theme stated by the harpsichord which is then subject to variations. Ramble - As the title might suggest, we’re back in New Orleans. It even begins with Oh Didn’t He Ramble. Very authentic-sounding, but a minute later we are into a whole different style and complexity. The title tune Fugace really features the harpsichord clashing with the doublebass and percussion, and of course fugal development is going on. A musical tribute to the Italian comic Toto and use of an Italian nursery rhyme are also part of the heady mix. In fact, Trovesi used some of this music for a puppet show staged at an Italian festival in August. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, John Abercrombie - Three Guitars - Chesky JD248:

This trio of acoustic guitarists without any additional accompaniment reminded me of the classic Friday Night in San Francisco album by Al Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin. Three Guitars is not live and it’s a bit more sedate than the earlier guitar trio, but it’s better fidelity and a greater variety of music - with 13 tracks, all composed by one or the other of the three members of the trio. One aspect of the session was closer to live performance than studio: Chesky recorded in the naturally reverberant acoustics of St. Peter’s Church in NYC, and the guitarists used no headphones.

Instead of the exotic presence of flamenco guitarist De Lucia on the SF album, we have here the exotic presence of Brazilian guitarist Assad (who is cuter than De Lucia too). She also plays kalimba and flute and adds mouth and body percussive sounds. She is the only one of the trio who also performs as a noted classical guitarist. Abercrombie has long been an influential guitarist and appeared with many different jazz groups such as Chico Hamilton, Billy Cobham and Dave Holland, as well as with bluesman Johnny Hammond. Coryell was a pioneer in jazz fusion in the 1970s and has gigged with Dizzy, Mingus, Chico Hamilton and Randy Brecker. This is a great musical experience - don’t miss it!

Tracks: Seu Jorge E Dona Ica, New Lute Prelude, New Lute Interlude, Soundtrack, After the Rain, Descending Grace, Metamorphosis, No Flight Tonight, Ralph’s Piano Waltz, Suspended Circles, Exercise in Fourths, Autumn Breeze, Timeless. Purchase Here

- John Henry

Ron Carter, bass - The Golden Striker (with Mulgrew Miller, piano; Russell Malone, guitar) - Blue Note 90832:

Ron Carter is stepped into the recently -vacated shoes of Ray Brown as one of the must-heard bassists heard in the world of jazz today. He has contributed to over 2000 albums, and since being a member of Miles Davis’ quintet of the 1960s has worked to have the acoustic bass recognized as a lead instrument. He also frequently records with his piccolo bass, which moves the bass’ sound up a register. He used four cellos in his nonet and notice that instead of the third member of this trio being a drummer, he uses a guitarist. This gives the trio a sort of swinging chamber jazz sound instead of adding a second percussion instrument to the already percussive piano.

As if to illustrate this point, Carter opens with a John Lewis composition; the Modern Jazz Quartet having been the quintessence of chamber jazz. (Interesting that the MJQ’s Golden Striker was built around the sparse percussion strikes of Connie Kay’s drum set and Carter’s trio has no drums at all.) Four tunes by Carter are on the date. A Theme in 3/4 Time is a lyrical ballad originally written for Joe Henderson, and it features a very classical-like style from Miller. Miller and Malone also contribute two tracks. A direct classical source is the Adagio theme from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, already popularized by Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, the MJQ and many others in jazz. Arranger Robert Freeman provided a new view of this classic.

Tracks are: the Golden Striker, On and On, NY Slick, Concierto de Aranjuez, Cedar Tree, A Quick Sketch, Parade, A Theme in 3/4, Autumn Leaves. Purchase here

- John Henry

OK, so neither of the following are jazz, but they seem more comfortable in this company than elsewhere...
Buenos Aires Tango 2 - Collection - (Commemorative album of the Second Buenos Airs Tango Festival in Paris) - Milan M2-36023:

The pervasive jazz elements in the tangos of Piazzolla have endeared him to many jazz fans who don’t consider themselves part of the tango culture. But there was and still is tango music before Piazzolla, and this is one of the best samplers of it I have heard. There was nothing on the kitschy Hernando’s Hideaway sort of tango here, and recorded recently in Argentina, the sound is excellent. Be prepared for the fact this is not all instrumental - there are quite a few vocals here, and no translations provided. There are also a number of milongas, a close relative of the tango. Neither the bands nor the titles will be familiar to most non Argentines so I won’t elaborate on them. Purchase here

Royal City Saxophone Quartet - Smiles and Chuckles, Celebrating the Music of the Six Brown Brothers - CBC Records MVCD 1160:

The sax craze in North America was started around 1915 by the Six Brown Brothers, said to be one of the best-paid musical acts on the stage. Their music was a mix of ragtime, circus music, novelty numbers, vaudeville favorites, and fox trots. (One of the members became Ringling Brothers’ Superintendent of Elephants after leaving the Brown Brothers.) Their costumes and stage zaniness were a major part of their appeal to audiences of that time. The cover photo of them on this CD shows that one of the brothers - who had earlier run away from home to play with a traveling minstrel’s ensemble - put on blackface and dressed up in silly outfits with outsize shoes. Among the impersonations the group offered were bandsman John Philip Sousa and King Tut. The photo also shows that one of the six saxes was a rare baritone sax - which also provided something different to gawk at in addition to deep bass support for the sextet’s ensemble sound. Some of the numbers are similar to the rapid fire sax displays of Rudy Wiedoeft, and Laughing Vamp was inspired by the “vampire” character of actress Theda Bara. The two bonus tracks start off with the original Six Brown Brothers 78 rpm of a tune, then do a quick crossfade into the Royal City Quartet’s version of the same.

Tracks: Smiles & Chuckles, Torrid Dora, At the Chicken Chaser’s Ball, Laf’n Sax, Passion Dance, Lucille, Kitten Scamper, Golden Spur March, The Silver Strand Waltz, Egyptland, Bull Frong Blues, Russian Rag, Comedy Tom, That Alabama Jasbo Band, Kismet fox trot, Laughing Vamp, The Story Book Ball, Tucker Trot, Hey Paw!, Tom Brown’s Saxophone Waltz, Parade of the Elephants, Break’n Sax, two bonus tracks. Purchase here

- John Sunier

Harmonious Wail - Gypsy Swing - Naxos World 76056-2:

Harmonious Wail is a seven-piece group specializing - but not exclusively - in Django Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz; the only original style of jazz that came from outside the U.S. Among the additions not usually found in the typical Hot Club of France tribute group are vocals, a mandolin, accordion, conga drums and “cardboard box.” The thoroughly professional group is based in Wisconsin. While the expected Minor Swing, Swing Gitan and Sheik of Araby are here, so are other tunes from the Great American Songbook that the Hot Club never played, actual gypsy tunes such as Two Guitars and Czardas, and the CD opens with Moscow Nights. Mixed with the recreation of gypsy jazz of the 30s are also bits of American folk and bluegrass and bossa nova. Maggie Delaney-Ponthoff handles the several vocals with aplomb.
Tracks: Moscow Nights, Two Guitars/Gypsy Campfire, I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, Valse Samois, Some of These Days, Czardas, St. Louis Blues, The Basso, Rose Room, Dark Eyes, Limehouse Blues, Swing Gitan, Chanson pour Henri, Sheik of Araby, Bossa Dorado, After You’ve Gone, Minor Swing, Ballgame. Purchase here

- John Henry

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