Part 1 of our jazz reviews this issue covers ten piano discs:
Sir Roland Hanna – Tributaries (Reflections on Tommy Flanagan) – IPO Recordings 104 *****:
Pianist Flanagan died in 2001 and fellow Detroiter Hanna recorded this wonderful tribute to the great pianist. Sadly, almost a year to the day later Hanna also passed, so this is a double tribute album. In his album notes jazz pianist Dick Katz lists the several great pianists to come out of the Detroit scene, which also included Hank Jones and Barry Harris. He observes that a special sort of lyricism seemed to be part of the improv style of all of them. Hanna added to that a love of European classical music not unlike MJQ founder John Lewis. But he didn’t dis the blues in the process either.
A Child Is Born is not one of my favorite jazz standards, but Hanna makes almost a Debussy Prelude out of it – yet without the overly obvious quotations of someone like Don Shirley. Never Let Me Go also receives a classical interp, getting jazzy only towards its conclusion. The opening and closing tunes are both by Flanagan, and a high point in the center is Tom McIntosh’s The Cup Bearers – which Flanagan frequently performed and loved. Terrific piano sonics, which could be due to the producers having recorded in the SUNY Performing Arts Center rather than a studio, and using 96K/24bit encoding.
Tracks: Sea Changes, A Child is Born, Body and Soul, Soon, Things Aint’s Waht They Used To Be, Never Let Me Go, The Cup Bearers, ‘Tis, I Concentrate on You, Robin’s Next, Delarna.
– John Henry
Clara Ponty – Mirror of Truth – JLP Productions 005 ****:
Clara is the daughter of electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and he contributes on several of the dozen tracks here with violin, overdubbed multiple violins and synthesizer. There is also participation by a guitarist, cellist, doublebassist and percussionist. Two of the tracks are solo piano and both Steinways and a Bosendorfer are used by Ms. Ponty. All originals. Nice stuff – not as hard-edged as her father’s style, more in a sort of classically-influenced lyrical style similar to that of the late Sir Hanna, and influence by various ethnic musics but especially that of India. The string arrangements by Jean-Luc for the multi-violins are very tasteful and even the synth is used sparingly. While not as wide-ranging a collection as was the first release from pianist Hiromi – and certainly not delving into the avant or funky as deeply as that – this is an auspicious third CD effort from a talented young lady who has something to say at the keyboard.
Tracks: Glimpses of Paradise, In Quest of New Horizons, Mirror of truth, Autumn Bells, The Last Romantics, Joyous Awakening, Atlantis, Time to Say Farewell, In the Shadow of Stars, The Paths to Wisdom, Serenity, The Cry of the Forest.
– John Henry
Denny Zeitlin – SlickRock (with Buster Williams, bass; Matt Wilson, drums) – MaxJazz MXJ209 ****:
Easily the hands-down winner in the Downbeat psychiatrist/jazz pianist category, Zeitlin brings us four originals and some unexpected analysis of six standards in his 30th or more CD as a leader. He has discussed his dual careers, saying that a sense of deep empathy is what is similar in the two pursuits – whether with the patient in his office or the music and musicians in a performance. His harmonic territory is not quite as avant as on some of his previous releases, and this is straight-ahead acoustic piano – Zeitlin having long ago given up a previous mounting stack of electronic keyboards and synths for the real thing. The title tune is an original inspired by a type of Utah sandstone perfect for mounting biking on, which is the pianist’s passion.
Tracks: You and the Night and the Music, Wishing on the Moon, Every Which Way, Put Your Little Foot Right Out, It Could Happen to You, Body and Soul, Sweet Georgia Brown, E.S.P., Just Passing By, Slickrock.
– John Henry
Dick Hyman and Tom Pletcher: If Bix Played Gershwin (with Dan Levinson, clarinet & C-Melody sax; David Sager, trombone; Vince Giordano, Bass sax; Bob Leary, guitar/banjo/vocal; Ed Metz Jr., Drums) – Arbors Jazz ARCD 19283 ****:
What a nifty idea for a jazz album! Although they were both big time in the 1920s Bix Beiderbecke never recorded any Gershwin for some reason. Pianist Hyman gave a concert at the NYC 92nd Street Y in 1996 with the same title as this disc, and the concept has now been realized as this CD. Pletcher is of course a cornetist, and together the duo imagined how Bix would have performed 17 Gershwin tunes if he had done so. Actually one was composed by someone else but has lyrics by brother Ira. There are two versions of Embraceable You – the first had Pletcher inspired by the Buddy Hackett’s recording of the tune; the second more authentically Bixian and supported by Hyman’s accompaniment being closer to Bix’s keyboard style. The track that makes the total 18 is a four-minute wonder – Beiderbecke’s impressionistic masterpiece In A Mist, with eight different Gershwin themes interpolated into it! This collection is the cats’ pajamas; pour yourself a glass of hooch, put your feet up on the hassock and dig it, daddy!
Selections: I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,’ Oh Lady Be Good!, Sweet and Low-down, I Got Rhythm, But Not for Me, Kongo Kate, I’ve Got a Crush on You, Rialto Ripples, The Half Of It Dearie Blues, ‘S Wonderful, Yankee Doodle Rhythm, I Was So Young, Fascinating Rhythm, In A Mist, Sunny Disposish, Embraceable You Nos. 1 & 2, Somebody Loves Me.
– John Henry
Randy Porter Trio – Brio (with John Wiitala, bass; Reinhardt Melz, drums) – Heavywood Music HW7883J ****:
Portland-based pianist Porter has a refined and swinging trio in his new release disc. Five of the dozen tunes are his own, two by another Porter, and others by such jazz lights as Charlie Parker and Tadd Dameron. Porter has a wide-ranging jazz piano approach and seems able to handle any sort of groove, though he doesn’t break any new ground here. Sound and balance are fine. There’s no explanation or credits for the striking front and back photos, which appear to be streets somewhere in the Andes. Tracks are: Brio, Anything Goes, Julian, Three Strands, Night and Day, I’ll Be Around, Weird Weather, Sirius, Green Dolphin Street, Baby Baby All the Time, Relaxin’ at the Camarillo, Tadd’s Delight.
– John Henry
Duke Ellington – Piano In the Foreground (with Aaron Bell or Jimmy Woode, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums) Recordings of 1957-1962 – Columbia/Legacy CK 87042 ****:
This was originally a stereo LP by the Ellington trio, with nearly 41 minutes of music – unusually lengthy for an early stereo disc – and it and its companion album haven’t been available in the U.S. for decades now. But in this new remastering not only has the sound of the original tapes been cleaned up using Sony’s SBM processing and DSD recording, but a total of seven bonus tracks have been added – all but two of them also in stereo. Four of these are simply titled Piano Improvisations by Ellington. There is a lovely solo piano version of one of the loveliest tunes the Duke ever penned – his lyrical Lotus Blossom. Some rare Ellington tunes are included: Fontainebleau Forest, So, and a couple of African fantasies the trio cooked up on the spot. Bassist Bell called this the most relaxed album Ellington ever made, saying they just got together in the studio and played – sometimes not even realizing they were being taped. Bell performed for two years as the only bassist in the Ellington Orchestra. Newly-commissioned liner notes are included in the booklet along with the original jacket notes from the LP which were written by a contributing editor to HiFi/Stereo Review.
Tracks: I Can’t Get Started, Cong-Go, Body and Soul, Blues for Jerry, Fontainebleau Forest, Summertime, It’s Bad to be Forgotten, A Hundred Dreams Ago, So, Searching Pleading for Love, Springtime in Africa, Lotus Blossom, All the Things You Are – Take 1 & 2, Piano Improvisations 1 – 4.
– John Henry
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Piano In The Background – Columbia/Legacy CK 87107 ****:
As a companion album to Piano In The Foreground, his album is really wrongly titled since the Duke’s piano is very much in the foreground on most of the 14 tracks. There are five bonus tracks, including an alternate take of a tune on the original LP and a never-before-issued track: Harlem Air Shaft. Ellington plays even more piano than usual because on this session he was tickling the 91 keys of a Bosendorfer piano. Many of the gorgeous arrangements of the Ellington hits came from Gerald Wilson, and with the enhancement of the original tapes by the remastering engineers we have here a perfect combination of music that sounds good in very good sound. Both of these reissues are part of a Sony Music project devoted to one of the most prolific composer/pianist/band leaders in the history of recorded music.
Tracks: Happy Go Lucky Local, What Am I Here For?, Medley: Kinda Dukish/Rockin’ in Rhythm, Perdido, I’m Beginning to See the Light, Mid-Riff, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Main Stem, Take the “A” Train, Lullaby of Birdland, The Wailer, Dreamy Sort of Thing, Lullaby of Birdland (alternate take), Harlem Air Shaft.
– John Henry
Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes (with Red Mitchell, bass; Chuck Thompson,drums) – Contemporary/Fantasy CCD-3523-2 ****:
This and the following two reissues are part of Fantasy’s 20bit/K2 Super Coding series remastered by JVC with some of the equipment and processes that go into the xrcd audiophile series. Although Contemporary was early into the stereo game, the sessions date from 1956 and are still in mono. There is a warning in the notes about possible tape flaws in the original recordings, but I didn’t hear anything noticeable. In his third album for Contemporary Hawes chose mostly standards as he had done in the past. Perhaps this was the reason why everybody liked him- they’re familiar with the tunes and he doesn’t distort them out of recognition in his bouncy improvisations. Mitchell was one of the best on the bass and added a lot of bounce to the proceedings. Tracks: Somebody Loves Me, The Sermon, Embraceable You, I Remember You, A Night in Tunisia, Lover Come Back to Me, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Billy Boy, Body and Soul, Coolin’ the Blues.
– John Henry
Red Garland’s Piano (with Paul Chambers on bass & Arthur Taylor, drums) – Prestige/Fantasy 20bit K2 Super Coding series PRCD-7086-2 ****:
Dating from 1956 and ‘57, these sides were the second album the great jazz pianist recorded for Prestige. Garland was one of those pianists who chose his notes carefully and placed them just so, with no unnecessary fluff – an elegant style if you please. Those notes were frequently in solid block chords, and they contributing to rather than prevented him from swinging mightily, as he does in all eight of these tracks. Mono but Van Gelder mono, which means who cares? And they’re never sounded better than here.
Tracks: Please Send Me Someone to Love, Stompin’ at the Savoy, The Very Thought of You, Almost Like Being in Love, If I Were a Bell, I Know Why And So Do You, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, But Not For Me.
– John Henry
Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Himself – Riverside/Fantasy 20bit K2 Super Coding series RCD-235-2 ****:
Another mono classic you would never know or care is mono. Dating from l957, eight of the nine tracks feature the quirky pianist-composer along with his piano in the studio and in a more reflective mode than usually heard when he has a group with him. But as original producer Orin Keepnews points out in the notes, this is not just Monk playing the same way he would if there was a horn and rhythm along for the ride – not at all. He is doing a lot of self-discovery of these mostly standards – sort of thinking out loud about them.
He insisted on having the final track of the original LP – Monk’s Mood – bring in John Coltrane on tenor sax and bassist Wilbur Ware, even though it departed from the theme of the album being all solo piano Monk. Keepnews agrees with his decision. But what he has added as a special bonus to the original eight tracks is a nearly 22-minute epic session he had with Monk at the keyboard on his classic ‘Round Midnight. Keepnews had it spliced together from various takes and it includes stopping and discussions between the artist and producer about the music and recording. Sort of like those rehearsal bonuses that come with some classical albums. Fascinating. Monk had a reputation for being a man of few words, but when he was working on his music like this he was focused and actually got out whole sentences. The piano sound is top flight – I can’t imagine this or the Hawes disc sounding any better in SACD format. Sorry I’m not adding up all the tracks on these discs, but you’re getting well over an hour of stuff here for a mid-price point. Monk fans and modern jazz piano aficionados in general will go nuts over both of these!
Tracks: April in Paris, A Ghost of a Chance, Functional, I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, I Should Care, ‘Round Midnight, All Alone, Monk’s Mood, ‘Round Midnight (bonus track).
– John Henry