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ROSCOE MITCHELL Conversations I (with Craig Taborn & Kikanju Baku)

Album · 2014 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.43 | 2 ratings
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Seventy-three year old Art Ensemble of Chicago legend Roscoe Mitchell experiences one of his most creative periods during last years. "Conversations I" is one of his most current albums and differently from some his more contemporary classic-related recordings it contains improvisational jazz.

Besides of Roscoe,trio contains two musicians of young generation: well known pianist/keyboardist Craig Taborn(who already collaborated with Mitchell on some recordings) and virtually unknown drummer Kikanju Baku,who in my eyes is real hero of this album. Seventy-something minutes long free-form improvisational release could sound as danger in many listeners minds,and not without reason - too often even talented musicians enjoy playing what they like to play with each other and using the modern technologies' possibilities offers all that endless noise to public,searching on new "New Things".As a result more and more even enthusiastic experimental music fans starting to avoid everything what is attractively tagged as "free form improvisational suite presented in full without editing..." etc,etc.Fortunately, "Conversations" are not that kind of beauty,even more - this music in many senses is right opposite to thrillers,described above.

From very first seconds "Conversations"' listener feels like he's presented on good old friends meeting - each musical instrument is extremely close to speechless hunam voice here, not always by its sound but more important - by the way it's used. Roscoe plays relaxed but very active story-telling saxes and flute,changing every minute,with million of intonations,subtle emotions and unusual warmness. Fantastic drummer Baku demonstrates true miracles - his quirky and technical drumming doesn't sound as mechanical device produced sound at all. Extremely percussive album could be described as collection of dialogues, and even those who don't understand the language,are involved and really enjoy the process of conversation.

Craig Taborn's keyboards are important but only supportive instrument here; its sound as youngest friend in a meeting who enjoys listening to dialogues of two his friends and adds some comments trying to be tactic and doesn't destroy great atmosphere.

The main miracle is still how beautiful and easy-accessible sound this quirky and complex music. Most probably it happens because all album long things changes every moment: one can hardly find two same tricks or steps here. Telepathic communication,warm and stylish atmosphere,tasteful balancing between beauty and complex - all that ingredients makes this album one of the best recordings I listened for quite a long time.Sound quality is excellent - listener feels like sitting between the musicians on scene.

And - if you will like this album and will feel like it's not enough, there are "Conversation 2" released by same trio, similar but a bit different second part of the real joy.

ERIC HOFBAUER Prehistoric Jazz – Volume 1(The Rite of Spring)

Album · 2014 · Third Stream
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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It seems every time you turn around these days someone has a new jazz version of “The Rite of Spring” out. Possibly the recent 100 year anniversary of the piece has something to do with that. A certain high profile piano trio got a lot of attention recently for their rendition of “Rite”, but their version was turgid and unimaginative compared to this far better version by the less known guitarist Eric Hafbauer and his four creative band mates (Jerry Sabatini - trumpet, Todd Brunel - clarinet, Junko Fujiwara - cello, Curt Newton - drums). This version of “Rite” uses the melodies and structure of the original for some very imaginative improvisations that also manage to stay true to the integrity of Stravinsky’s original piece.

There are so many interesting cross-references at work here, Hofbauer seems to have thought of everything. First of all, the sound and approach of this ensemble often sounds a bit like 1920s jazz, which would have been the era in which “Rite” could have been first played as an experimental jazz piece. None of this is obvious or ‘museum like’ as Hofbauer also draws on many modern elements such as free improvisation and more. The 20s sound of the ensemble and the modern NYC eclectic influences blend seamlessly, the end result is a piece that fits well with the music of today, but could almost pass as an avant-garde piece from the 20s as well. The 20s was a very experimental time in jazz, with a lot of borrowing from modern composers, and its possible Hofbauer may be paying tribute to that.

The other interesting cross-reference comes when you notice that when “Rite” is played with this small ensemble, it sounds a lot like Stravinsky’s “History of the Soldier”. “History” was one of Igor’s follow-ups to the massive “Rite”, a small scale piece by contrast, “History” was one of his first pieces to show a strong influence from jazz, both in the instrumentation and in the music. Possibly the key to bringing all these elements together, the 20s jazz and the latter jazz influenced Stravinsky pieces, is the fact that there is a clarinet on board instead of a saxophone. Todd Brunel’s clarinet playing is what gives this rendition of “Rite” so much of its flavor. All of this may sound academic, but despite their sensitivity to nuance, Eric and his crew approach this music with sly humor and a sense of chaotic fun.

Eric Hofbauer’s version of “The Rite of Spring” never gets boring or predictable, the main melodies of the piece come and go while they mix with all manner of diversions and excursions. Eric is able to accent the modernist elements of this piece, both in the context of its time period and today, and show the connecting similarities in both decades. This rendition really brings new life to Stravinsky's creation, and I think Igor would have enjoyed hearing it. The added plus is Hofbauer’s guitar playing, which somehow can capture some of the color of Stravinsky’s original orchestrations.

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PINETOP SMITH Pine Top Smith Boogie Woogie Piano

Album · 1943 · Boogie Woogie Piano
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Clarence “PINE TOP” SMITH came from nowhere after being raised in Alabama and teaching himself how to play some of the most influential piano to emerge in the early 20th century. Taking a cue from Scott Joplin ragtime he was one of the earliest players to create the boogie woogie style. He spent his youth performing at house parties and eventually played with Ma Rainey as well as Butterbeans & Susie. He relocated to Chicago in 1928 and only managed to record 11 tracks in his short life before passing on at the tender age of 25 from a gunshot wound in a dance-hall fight. He is a bit of mystery as no known photographs of PINE TOP are known to exist but his legacy lives on as one of the most influential players in the nascent jazz scene of the 1920s. This album came out in 1943 and is really just a mere sampling of the few recordings that exist.

“Pinetop's Boogie Woogie” is his most famous composition which incorporates a gallant galloping of the finger breaking antics driven by a fast tempo and is the track that made PINETOP famous. It incorporates the rhythmic breaks that were the backbone of the whole ragtime sound. Totally outstanding playing that must have turned some heads during the day.

“Pinetop's Blues” is a more typical mid tempo bluesy piano rag with vocals that lament about the woes of love and abuse in the attempt to woo a woman

“Jump Steady Blues” is a dialogue between PINE TOP and the bartender lamenting about not making money like other piano players. Boogie woogie bass line with freestyle improvised upper register in a blues style

“I'm Sober Now” is another mid tempo bluesy rag with a spoken narrative dialogue between two characters debating about if the music is too sentimental and that it should be more blues and Pinetop declares that he doesn't play the blues any more since he is sober now

Hard to judge this as an album since it's really just a collection released posthumously but every song is really a classic and the influential factor alone means this deserves a 5 star rating. Boogie woogie is an extremely addictive style as well being the perfect gateway drug for anyone interested in a deeper appreciation for the huge wealth of jazz music that follows.

QUINCY JONES The Birth of a Band (aka Fab!)

Album · 1959 · Big Band
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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The Birth of a Band (Volume 1)” is one more excellent big band album by Quincy Jones recorded in the early part of his career when he was still a full time jazzer, but it will be one of his last pure jazz studio recordings. At the same recording session that yielded the ten songs for “Birth”, Jones and his band also recorded eleven kitsch pop/easy listening tunes that will show up many years later as “Birth of a Band Vol 2”. A recent CD re-issue of “Birth” has combined both volumes under the name ‘The Complete Birth of a Band’, which is unfortunate because the inclusion of the cheezy pop songs has tarnished the name of this album. The informed buyer needs to know that the music on the two original volumes of “Birth” are quite different from each other, and you may not want to purchase a set that includes both volumes.

If you are familiar with Jones’ albums that preceded “The Birth of a Band”, then you know what to expect here; colorful modern big band arrangements with super tight ensemble playing and an economical approach to jazz that shows Jones’ pop sensibilities. There are plenty of great soloists on here; including Phil Woods, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry and Benny Golson. All of the tunes are good, but the best is album opener and title song, “The Birth of a Band”, a super hot uptempo bop number with a couple of great sax solos.

If you seek Quincy’s jazz side, this is another good one to get, but if don’t care for his pop side, watch out for the ‘complete’ versions that include volume 2.

SABIR MATEEN Holidays In Siena

Live album · 2011 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Probably not of real star status,American sax player Sabir Mateen has serious reputation,partially in Europe,as one of strongly representative American free jazz reedists of mid-generation.During last decade he released just one album in States,but near ten in Europe(mostly in Italy,but in Poland and France as well).I had a pleasure to see him playing live just two months ago - during excellent concert where he played duo with younger Lithuanian guitar improviser Juozas Milasius. That has been almost stolen by extravagant poser Milasius by his Sharrock-meet-Bailey guitars accrobatics. Sabir demonstrated his usual American jazz-rooted but far not so explosive (and externally effective) sax impovs which successfully anchored guitar extravaganza though.

Here, on one of Mateen latest live releases, situation is almost oppositely different. Sabir plays in Italian Siena,hometown of his musical partner - acoustic bassist Silvia Bolognesi.Virtually unknown outside of her homecountry,Silvia played with Butch Morris Orchestra,participated in Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton masterclasses.

Sabir is in great form here - he is obvious leader, and his sax fills all the space of Teatro dei Varii. As usual, his soloing isn't sharp,more thinking and even lyrical in moments (Sabir plays flutes and clarinet as well).From very beginning Silvia's bass is on (quite straight) rhythmic support, she will have her solo moment as well though. Generally all recordings sound more as solo reeds recital,with sax or clarinet telling stories, building quite comfortable and intelligent atmosphere,without tension,screaming or distortions,but far not polished or conformist. Sabir demonstrates here what he does best - almost forgotten free jazz tradition without noises,sound attacks and playing on listeners nerves. And it works perfectly - Silvia isn't really on his league but Sabir's playing is warm and informal enough to save the situation. With better bassist (or let say - as a sax/reeds/bass acoustic trio) it most probably would be a really great night.


Album · 1998 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 2.50 | 1 rating
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ALIEN FASHION SHOW were one of the many swing revival bands that graced the 90s. These veterans of the LA club scene consisted of Eldon Daetweiler (trumpet / vocals), his brother Jeff Daetweiler (drums), Todd Thurman (guitar), Jeff Allen (bass) and Woodchuck Saito (keyboards). They released their one and only eponymous album in 1998 on the Surfdog label after becoming a hit on the West Coast lounge lizard circuit.

The music is clearly digging into the sounds of yesteryear with the main focus on a loungy style of jazz but there is plenty of rockabilly and piano jazz as well. I personally find this whole affair to be a noble effort but frankly it pales in comparison to the much better contemporary bands going for this retro sound such as Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the masters of all things swing revival the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I find the vocals a little lackluster and devoid of the passionate delivery the well played music is demanding.

Much of the music isn't as swingin' as I would like and when it bursts open the rockabilly gates it sounds like a cover band of the Brian Setzer Orchestra with moments when it sounds like they could cross a line into Stray Cats territory. Overall not a horrible album but just not enough meat and potatoes to add enough calories for a satisfying meal. Probably my favorite two tracks are remakes. The first is “Detroit Swing City” which is a cover and play on words of KISS' famous “Detroit Rock City” and a decent cover of “Roxanne” by The Police otherwise there is a whole heap of filler and scant moments of interest.

ESTHER PHILLIPS The Country Side Of Esther Phillips (aka Release Me!)

Album · 1966 · Jazz Related Blues
Cover art 4.25 | 2 ratings
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Esther Phillips hit rock bottom by 1954 at 19 years of age and stayed there till 1962 after leaving Johnny Otis’ band in 1950 . She was known as Little Esther back then and in her first year with Johnny Otis she had a string of hits but as a roller coaster climbs to the top one knows where it is going next and Esther took that ride down at a quite a speed. She left Johnny Otis’s band after the first year and went solo but the hits stopped. She recorded thirty songs with her new record label Federal with only one getting to number eight on the charts. She went back home to Texas and worked clubs and venues locally but drug addiction kept getting in the way and luckily for Esther a young Kenny Rogers saw one of her shows in 1962 and signed her to his brother’s record label, Lenox. She went on to record a Ray Price hit “Release Me” (1963) which was a Country song and made it number one on the R&B charts and number eight on the Pop ones. After a brief hiatus at Lenox Esther signed with Atlantic Records and recorded her first album “And I Love Him” in 1965 which was released in 1966 with a follow up in the same year “Esther Phillips Sings” but she was not finished yet for 1966 when she also released “The Country Side Of Esther Phillips”.

The title explains the album’s theme quite sufficiently and all are given a beautiful Soul injection from Esther with the Anita Kerr sisters providing backing vocals throughout the album’s duration which was recorded down in Nashville for even more Country authenticity. Ray Charles was the ground breaker for these type of integrated albums with his release in 1962 of “Modern Sounds In Country And Western” which today is considered his greatest album by many and “The Country Side Of Esther Phillips” is not far behind for quality. Eleven tracks were included within the album with two Hank Williams’, being “I Can’t Help It” and “Why Should We Try Anymore” and Esther makes them her own with a stunning Soul interpretation of both. “I’d Fight The World” a Hank Cochrane song is given a lovely Soul rendition and for me is one of the top songs included. “Just Out Of Reach” was a Ray Price hit and an album single for Esther, “Be Honest With Me” is simply superb which is a Gene Autry and Fred Rose composition( Hank Williams covered many a, Fred tune). Even an early Charlie Rich “No Headstone on My Grave” with a Blues feel injected is just another album highlight with “After Loving You”, “Am I That Easy To Forget”, “Just Out Of Reach” and also included is a beautiful Soul version of “I've Forgotten More Than I’ll Ever Know About Him”. “Release Me” is a different version to Esther’s 1963 single and for myself it is actually an improvement with more emotion contained within.

“The Country Side Of Esther Phillips” is the female version of Ray’s “Modern Sounds In Country And Western” and could be considered the greatest female take of a Soul/Country album ever recorded. Esther had her own distinct sound with her voice bringing a distinct magic to this album and she sang from her guts with all the necessary emotion placed beautifully within every song. Many say her later Kudu Label material is better due to her hit “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” but for me it is the Atlantic albums with this being her jewel. We lost her far too young, she was only 48 back in 1984. If like myself you love these Country/ Soul albums and find this and Ray Charles enjoyable another good one is Joe Tex’s, “Soul Country” on Atlantic as well.

CHARLES TYLER Mid Western Drifter

Album · 1992 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Kentucky-born bari sax player Charles Tyler met Albert Ayler at age 15, and later relocated to New York to play with him. Tyler participated recording Ayler's "Bells" and "Spirits Rejoice",in 1966 released debut as leader (on ESP-Disk).In late 60s he moved to California to study and teach, played with Arthur Blythe and David Murray among others. His albums,released in late 60s - early 70s contain tuneful and energetic free bop, non-nonsense one, but even at that time he haven't been widely recognized.During 70s he played in New York lofts (incl. Sam Rivers Rivbea),collaborated with Cecil Taylor and Billy Bang,

In 1982 traveling Europe as Sun Ra Archestra's member he decided to stay in Denmark, at the end of the decade relocated to France. During his European period he recorded few more albums,played with local musicians and American ex-repatriates as Steve Lacy. His European releases,all on tiny labels,are even less known than his earlier American works, and it's a shame,since he stays one of rare baritone sax player-band leader with characteristic tuneful free-bop playing,recalling Ayler explosive and noisy but very trad-jazz rooted free jazz.

"Mid Western Drifter" is second of two Tyler released French studio albums,coming from the last decade of his life.Both released in 1992,they contain far not as explosive playing as could be find on his American recordings from early 70s. First of two,"Folly Fun Magic Music" has been recorded with team of young French jazz musicians and even if contain some interesting moments,in whole sounds as lion playing with cats (all obviously enjoy the music they play though). Second, "Mid West Drifter", recorded just some weeks after, contains more mature music, played by trio (with Didier Levallet on bass and Curtis Clark on piano). The album opens with narrative poem of the same title and continues with mid-tempo boppish,bluesy and even trad-jazz influenced compositions, moody,even melancholic,but almost always with freer Tyler's soloing. Even if quite different by expression, all music and Tyler playing in partial recall some Archie Shepp late-70s freer hard bop album. From one hand this music has not much in common with big jazz scenes of early 90s, but from other hand it demonstrates that rare,near unique feel of authentic free-bop,which could be find probably on best 60s recordings only. It's obvious that being almost isolated from contemporary jazz stream of the time, small Scandinavian and France club scenes were that place where that originally American authentic early free bop spirit survived almost till the end of the century not in revival,but in original form.

Steve Tyler passed away in Toulon,France just less than three months after he recorded this his last album,from heart failure at the age of only 51.The only one more album he released during the last decade of his life,besides of two mentioned above",is obscure "Autumn In Paris"(1988) recorded and released in Sweden (on Silkheart)with local Brus Trio(I had a great pleasure to listen them live already as "Brus Sextet" in 2010 in Birstonas Jazz Fest - they played highest probe nu jazz that time).

Closing "Mid Western Drifter" Tyler sings "'Round Midnight" - with melancholy and touch of sadness in his voice.Great album for fans of accessible,soulful and tasteful free bop,it's shame Steve Tyler's name is almost forgotten. He requires more exposition, especially his earlier innovative albums. Fortunately there are some CD releases on market, I would recommend Tyler's European recordings to everyone who like Archie Shepp hard bop music.

DUKE ELLINGTON Such Sweet Thunder

Album · 1957 · Progressive Big Band
Cover art 5.00 | 2 ratings
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If ever there was a record where you want the original vinyl over the CD re-issue, “Such Sweet Thunder” is the one. After scoring a major coupe with their CD re-issue miraculous re-creation of Ellington’s 56 Newport concert, Columbia turned around and dropped the ball big time on their re-issue of “Thunder” by accidentally editing out key parts of Clark Terry’s famous trumpet soliloquy. An unforgivable mistake, it will be interesting to see what eventually happens with that CD. Meanwhile, I recently visited the local used record shop and picked up a vinyl copy of “Thunder“ (famous high quality ’6-eye’ Columbia label) in very good condition at a very reasonable price.

Of all the various Duke Ellington 3rd stream style ‘suites’ and other progressive big band projects, “Such Sweet Thunder” is probably his most successful. Its not his most experimental or ambitious collection, but probably his most coherent, and therein lies this album’s ability to keep the listener engaged. Billy Strayhorn also wrote and arranged much of this, and maybe someday he will get a much deserved co-billing. Although not labeled a suite, “Thunder” has much in common with late 19th century exotic Euro-Asian suites by composers like Grieg, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Much like those composer’s colorful suites, “Thunder” is made up of short vibrant orchestral pieces that contrast with each other in sequence, but eventually add up to a logical whole.

Although Ellington and Strayhorn worked very much in a jazz context, in many ways their strengths and contributions to music put them more in line with those who can take a short pop piece and elevate it to high art. Its easy to see Ellington/Strayhorn as the beginning of a line that will progress through Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, and then on to Brian Wilson, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and more. Each one of the pieces on “Sweet Thunder” is like a unique gem, complete in itself, yet an integral part of the whole collection. I hesitate to use the word ‘charming’ as it can sound shallow, but these little instrumentals can be hella charming and not the least bit glib or shallow.

So many highlights to point out here; album opener and title song “Such Sweet Thunder” is classic Ellington with dark noire chords, swingin burlesque beat and wailing plunger horns, while follow up “Sonnet for Ceaser” is all about 3rd stream style abstract orchestral colors. Possibly the best pieces appear on side two with Strayhorn’s slinky mystical ballad, “The Star-Crossed Lovers”, and the exotic pseudo African colors of “Half the Fun”. The album closes with the up-tempo bop fire of “Circle of Fourths”, a bluesy riff that keeps modulating upwards until they’ve covered all twelve keys, all of this in only a couple of minutes.

This is an excellent album and a must have for fans of Ellington’s artsy side, just beware of the recent CD re-issue, there are a lot of unhappy customers out there.


Album · 1973 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.08 | 11 ratings
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Welcome is the second jazz fusion album by Santana. It is a more laid-back, Latin-jazz outing than Caravanserai, but no less enjoyable. However, it does not generally get ranked as highly as Caravanserai or Borboletta. This may be because it is too mellow for fans steeped in the intense sounds of Santana's previous albums, and it does not have as many incendiary guitar solos by Carlos, who seems more into the overall sound here regardless of who is playing. With Caravanserai the band, and Carlos in particular, took a keen interest in jazz, Carlos collaborating on a number of solo albums with jazz musicians. Themes from John Coltrane appear on Welcome, along with collaboration with Alice Coltrane. The band's makeup has changed as well, so that affects the overall sound. While Welcome is not the innovative album that Caravanserai is, and does not have a consistent theme, the playing is great and the songs are good. Enjoy!

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