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BERNIE WORRELL Retrospectives

Album · 2016 · Funk
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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js
When you think of 70s keyboard heroes who manned giant stacks of futuristic keyboards and synthesizers while mixing their jazz and classical training with the rock and RnB sounds of the day, names like Chick Corea, Keith Emerson and Herbie Hancock all come to mind. No doubt those were the names that topped all the keyboard player polls year after year back then, but there was another artist who did all the same things, but his name slipped under the radar, and that keyboardist is the ultra creative Bernie Worrell. Possibly because Bernie worked behind the huge shadows of larger than life characters like George Clinton and Bootsie Collins, in the various P-funk ensembles (Parliament, Funkadelic etc), that Bernie did not get the notice he deserved. Still, if you listen to those old P-funk tracks, no one contributes more than Bernie, and P-funk’s hugely elaborate arrangements would not have been possible without someone with Bernie’s training and classical background.

After leaving P-funk, Bernie has continued to work as a sideman with artists like Bill Laswell, Buckethead, various Talking Heads, Govt Mule, Les Claypool and others in the jam band scene. Worrell occasionally records as a leader, but he still does not grab a lot of attention, maybe its because his albums as a leader are not as strong as his contributions as a sideman. His latest release, “Retrospectives”, may be a good example of this. The premise behind “Retrospectives” sounds very promising at first, basically this is an album on which Bernie re-visits some of his favorite P-funk tracks and records instrumental versions of those tracks. To any long time Worrell and P-funk fan this is an exciting idea, but unfortunately the album does not come through as strongly as you wish it could. Some tracks are okay, but others are fairly lackluster.

Probably the biggest problem with this album is that it sounds like Worrell covered everything by himself. The drum tracks are not strong, nor is the production. An over reliance on ‘silly’ synthesizer sounds from the exotica era also becomes tedious and overbearing after a while. Many of these songs could use a little breathing room from all the persistent synthesizers. Overall this album sounds like a fun hobby home project, not the keyboard powerhouse it could have been. Possibly Worrell could get a good producer like Bill Laswell involved, and a real drummer, and these tracks could get a better life.

Despite the problems, there are some good tracks on here, “You Hit the Nail on the Head” is played reggae style with a melodica lead, and perennial favorite, “Flashlight”, is cloaked in string synth arrangements that Beethoven would be proud of. Possibly the two strongest tracks come at the end with “Balance” featuring a stronger drum sound and less synth clutter and “The Moment”, a punchy Prince style synth-rocker with the best production on the whole album. There are enough good moments on “Retrospectives” to make it worthwhile to Bernie Worrell fans, but you have to wonder what this would have sounded like if more time had been taken.

CHES SMITH Ches Smith with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri: The Bell

Album · 2016 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
From the first dozen of albums released in 2016,there is one stand alone release. US drummer Ches Smith,better known as Xiu Xiu and Mr.Bungle member (or John Zorn collaborator, depending on one's background), in the very first days of 2016 released his debut on German ECM label. It is not his first album as leader, he already has released series of solo drums albums in US and few more - with collaborators in Europe (on Portuguese Clean Feed and Polish For Tune labels), but his appearance on ECM is still quite surprising.

Respected chamber jazz (and sterile European ambient/world fusion in a past) label doesn't look like proper home for ex-Mr.Bungle guy. Still things are changing though.

On "The Bell" Smith leads acoustic trio with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, both are far not a newbies for the label. Besides of playing drums,vibraphone and bells Ches Smith are composer of all album's material (part of it is obviously improvised, but generally the line between composed and improvised is extremely thin on this album).

So, surprisingly for Ches Smith but expect-ably for ECM release,music on "The Bell" is kind of chamber jazz,spiced with improvisational elements, but strongly influenced by modern classical composition. Both pianist and violist feel very comfortable with slow,often dark and calm atmosphere and, more surprisingly, Smith himself finds right place in this quite unusual for him environment.

First half (bigger) of "The Bell" represents similar by its tempo and atmosphere dark chamber jazz, the last third (starting from Wacken Open Air) is faster,sharper and moves towards contemporary jazz avant-garde.

A bit risky release,since its target is hardly Mr.Bungle fans nor ECM chamber safer chamber jazz lovers, it opens new interesting page in Ches Smith musical biography. "The Bell" contains interesting music,but it is even more curios what can come next from same or similar concept Ches Smith' projects.

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CHARLES KYNARD Woga

Album · 1972 · Funk Jazz
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Rokukai
Charles Kynard never burns like his Hammond B3 contemporaries, but he has the funkiest band around. Chuck Rainey and Paul Humphrey highlight a crack band that funktify jazz like few others. "Slop Jar" "Rock Steady" and especially the extended album closer "Shout" highlight this tremendously underrated set. Beat aficianados and crate diggers are sure to find a ton to like in this gem. Charles Kynard didn't record too often, and listening to this album one wonders if he couldn't have had a career renaissance like Dr Lonnie Smith or Jimmy McGriff. The badass looking black dude wearing headphones on the cover addsl appeal.

See if your local vinyl store has it.

THE GREYBOY ALLSTARS West Coast Boogaloo (with Fred Wesley)

Album · 1995 · Funk Jazz
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Rokukai
The Greyboy AllStars debut album, West Coast Boogaloo, is a fresh reinvention of an old jazz theme - chill grooves fortified with killer musicianship make for great listening. in 2016, these guys are well known. In 1995, it was the presence of Fred Wesley of James Brown fame that lent name credibility to this project. It still went unnoticed, but is a terrific addition to those who like their jazz straight with a smooth chaser. "Tenor Man" would become saxman Karl Denson's signature song. These guys have become legends on the jam band circuit. The more jazz less funk formula works for them. This album should interest all collectors from the Sonny Stitt/Groove Holmes/Rusty Bryant Prestige Records era of the '60's and '70's. Wesley is in top form and his funky jazz chops blend well with the young musicians from California.

THE GREYBOY ALLSTARS What Happened to Television

Album · 2007 · Acid Jazz
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Rokukai
If you like Acid Jazz, groove heavy nu-jazz, funky groove jazz with a side of grease then this is the album for you. The Grey boy All Stars proved they were legit throwbacks with their 1995 debut. That album, titled West Coast Boogaloo, lives up to it's title admirably and features the mighty Fred Wesley who give his patented funk stylings added throwback appeal. All musicians here have become stars among the jam band circuit and lend credence to the myth awesome musicians don't have to sell out their sound to big labels in order to make an authentic product and earn a solid living.

BOBBY PREVITE The Coalition of the Willing

Album · 2006 · (Post-70s) Eclectic Fusion
Cover art 4.98 | 4 ratings
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Rokukai
All one needs to know for a hell of a rock inspired jazz roll is a little background and a look at the credits

Drums, Percussion – Bobby Previte,Stanton Moore Guitar [Electric,12-string,Slide], Bass [Electric] – Charlie Hunter Harmonica – Stew Cutler Organ [Hammond], Bass [Electric] – Jamie Saft Saxophone [Tenor] – Skerik Trumpet – Steve Bernstein Tambourine [Occasional] – Dark Star

To know this has the makings of a true classic. Inspired by allout jazz musicians and their fondness for classic rock energy, this album rises above the rest and truly brings fusion to the contemporary scene. Any fan of the collision of rock and jazz should look listen to this and turn it up to 11. The Coalition of the Willing did several gigs in NYC that can be found on Internet Archive for nothing. Run to it.

DR LONNIE SMITH Funk Reaction

Album · 1977 · Soul Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Rokukai
(Dr) Lonnie Smith had settled into funky lite fuzak by the end of the seventies, trying his best to appeal to the jazz buying masses. Smith's appeal is his tasteful, elegant delivery of properly chosen and, most often, composed material. As with most of his output from the mid 1970's The Doctor's keyboards never dominate this session. It reads as super chill starsky and hutch type lounge music. While performed expertly, it can seem a little stale on the palettes of some. Sax Solos on "Bobbitt's Other Song" and "For the Love of It" add energy to this almost lost jazzfunkssoul gem/typical late seventies record riding the waves generated by Herbie Hancock and a host of others. The good news for the weary is there's no dabbling in disco, as Lonnie does on his next, and last record for sixteen years. The cover art adds to the cheese factor.

ADAM MAKOWICZ Adam Makowicz & George Mraz ‎: Classic Jazz Duets

Live album · 1982 · Bop
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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js
Adam Makowicz started out his musical career as a classical piano student at the Chopin Conservatory in Krakow Poland. Sometime in the mid-50s, Adam became interested in the jazz music that he heard on underground radio broadcasts. Poland was under USSR domination at this time and jazz was mostly forbidden. Once it was learned that Adam was playing jazz, he was kicked out of the university and spent many years as a mostly homeless person. Despite the hardships, Makowicz continued to develop an outstanding technique as a jazz pianist. Interestingly enough, the style that Makowicz developed was an older style, one rooted in the physical demands of stride piano and artists such as Art Tatum and Earl Hines. Early jazz piano required that the pianist be like an orchestra by themselves, with both hands pounding out fistfuls of notes. This was quite different from the more minimalist style pioneered by Monk and Bud Powell that had become the popular style with most modern pianists. This older style that Adam leaned towards could have been caused by his cultural isolation, or it could have been the style he preferred, or maybe a bit of both of those causes. Still, it is also interesting to note that those early jazz pianists who developed the big two-handed stride style were also very influenced by the Chopin pieces they learned in their youthful piano lessons. It would not be too far off to say that Chopin may be the connecting factor between Makowicz and the jazz pianists he admired.

In 1977, famed producer John Hammond brought Makowicz to the US where Adam began to record many albums. Cut forward to 1982 and Adam enters a jazz club called Bechts with fellow European bassist, George Mraz, to record “Classic Jazz Duets”. Side one of the album contains four bebop standards played brilliantly by the two artists. There is a lot of creative interplay as the two effortlessly slip in and out of double time, or reel off precise unison passages at blinding fast tempos. This could have been an outstanding neo-bop album, but problems emerge on side two. This side opens with a blazing version of “Cherokee” which keeps the good vibes flowing, but then the duo decides to cover the cheezy 70s pop song, “If”, yes the song by ultra-cheezy soft rock group Bread. Unfortunately, Adam’s very busy technique becomes quite tacky in the hands of this very trite pop dead end. After this, the album closes with yet one more tune more associated with lounge music than bebop. Its unfortunate these two clunkers undermine what could have been a much better album.

Despite the two questionable tunes, this album is still worth picking up for fans of that sort of heavily technical playing featured by artists like Oscar Peterson, or the aforementioned Art Tatum and Earl Hines. Adam’s playing, and his interactions with Mraz are at times mind-boggling.

STEPS AHEAD / STEPS Modern Times

Album · 1984 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 4.82 | 2 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
FAR AHEAD OF ITS TIME

Released in 1984, Modern Times, the group's second album as Steps Ahead, was a radical departure from their self-titled debut. Unlike the first album's mostly acoustic textures, Modern Times is a high-tech, futuristic, jazz-of-tomorrow fusion masterpiece. While many have used sequencers, throbbing synth-bass, and programmed percussion in a jazz context, to this day no one has done it better than this group on this album. Strong compositions, impassioned performances, and early DDD production are married to otherworldly yet urban atmospheres to create one of the best albums any of these distinguished players has ever appeared on.

Steps Ahead were always Mike Mainieri's group, and he is the only player to appear on every album. "Oops" and "Self Portrait" are classic Mainieri compositions: long-lined unforgettable melodies, loud/soft contrasts, quirky bridges, outstanding solos over synth splashes, and sudden endings. His two other songs on this album are a bit more eclectic. "Radio Active" is mostly programmed (special guest: Craig Peyton) and showcases Michael Brecker's multi-tracked licks and best soloing on the album. "Old Town" includes drumbox, gurgling synth loops, Tony Levin on the Chapman Stick, and Mainieri's marimba solo. Ubiquitous drummer Peter Erskine contributes the smooth "Now You Know" with guest (and future band member) Chuck Loeb on guitar, an exquisite Warren Bernhardt piano solo, and Brecker making a rare appearance on soprano sax. Brecker's only composition, "Safari", also features his soprano work before moving to the tenor and a brilliant Mainieri vibraphone solo. Bernhardt's "Modern Times" opens with intricate synth patterns and includes an Eddie Gomez bass solo that's almost drowned in the mix. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned here that while credited as a full band member, Gomez can only be heard on "Oops", "Modern Times", and "Now You Know". Not surprisingly, he has not appeared on another Steps Ahead album since.

While the shock of high-technology no doubt alienated some listeners, the gamble has paid off in that this album still sounds very, well, MODERN and contemporary over 30 years after its original release. Future Steps Ahead albums would never recapture the innovative, imaginative quality of Modern Times, and would add vocals and a revolving-door line-up that could never hold a candle to this original jazz "supergroup". If you're at all familiar with the players, Modern Times will provide a lifetime's worth of listening pleasure.

HAPPY 55 A Magic Word / Волшебное слово

Album · 2014 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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siLLy puPPy
HAPPY 55 is an interesting musical act from the southern industrial city of Voronezh, Russia which personally i have never heard of before but appears to be in close proximity to the Eastern Ukraine. While sometimes cited as a duo consisting of pianist, composer and main band member Iaroslav Brisov and percussionist Aleksandr Bitiutskikh, they added a third member Gennadiy Chuhlov to handle clarinet and additional synths. It sounds to me that there is some bass guitar at times but no credits are given so i assume perhaps it was synthesized instead of incorporating a real musician. HAPPY 55 has been garnering attention in their native land as being highly original and sounding like no other musical entity. And indeed i have to say that i can attest to that sentiment.

This music is almost impossible to classify as it covers a lot of territory but for progressive rock lovers it falls into the Rock In Opposition camp as it has that familiar avant-garde feel of the more energetic bands in that world but is firmly rooted in the classical and jazz worlds as well. This is an all instrumental album with lots of emphasis on piano, synthesizers and clarinet interactions with different passages through different moods and sonic textures. Sometimes you get the feel of Philip Glass, sometimes it treads into post-bop territory all with a Rachmaninoff concerto romanticism wending its way throughout the beautiful melodic progressions that twist and turn into new ones that keep a steady stream flowing while still being firmly rooted in the avant-garde. Generally speaking the piano maintains the melodic classical meets jazz feel while the clarinet covers the Rock In Opposition. There are just too many classical and jazz influences to even begin to mention as this stuff changes it up frequently.

While this could be considered rock in some circles there are no guitars to be heard, scarce bass and the drumming style is clearly straddling both jazz and RIO fields. This is pretty complex music as far as both melody and rhythms go and it is ever changing, ranging from the mellowest pastoral passages to extremely energetic outbursts that do bring a rock feel to the table. This is truly music that is outside of the box of orthodoxies in any rock, classical or jazz contexts. The fact that they have somehow qualified to be within the parameters of all these genres is a testament to the high quality and devotion put into every detail. Not only is the music amazingly complex but the production is first rate as well. This sounds like a spiffy modern day recording in the most professional manner.

This was actually quite surprising to hear as i wasn’t seeking anything of this sort to fulfill any musical yearnings. I love music that takes you somewhere somewhat familiar on different levels but throws all the rules out the window and totally surprises you. Well, HAPPY 55 has done just that. While true i would love to hear this music more developed with more instruments and encompassing larger thematic possibilities there is no doubt that this particular album as it is has a lot to digest without being totally alienating upon first listen. While the virtuosic musicianship is top notch, it really boils down to the outstanding song constructions and mood building dynamics that make this such a primo listen. I truly look forward to hearing more from HAPPY 55 in the future. And yes i agree with others that the album cover is quite lame but don’t let that interfere with letting yourself hear some amazingly performed music.

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