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jazz music reviews (new releases)

THE CHEAP ENSEMBLE Patrick Arthur , Dana Fitzsimons, Chris Otts : The Cheap 3nsemble

Album · 2017 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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The Cheap 3nsemble is a leaderless trio operating out of Atlanta, and their CD of the same name is their debut recording. Despite the somewhat sarcastic name, there is nothing flippant about this trio’s music, instead, they provide compositions and improvisations that are very thoughtful, and even delicate at times, but also muscular as well, depending on how the collective muse moves them. The opening three tracks show an attachment to the early innovations of the ECM label, with saxophonist Chis Otts in particular echoing an influence from Jan Garbarek. But later tracks reveal a band that is far more diverse than mere copycats. Joining Otts in this trio is drummer Dana Fitzsimmons, whose freewheeling approach to the drums may remind some of Paul Motian, and guitarist Patrick Arthur, whose combination of floating space contrasted with gritty distorted muscle may recall the young John Abercrombie.

Along with the aforementioned opening tracks, some other interesting cuts on here include Chick Corea’s abstract post bop classic, “Matrix”, which the ensemble deconstructs into a noisy heavy avant-rock work out. Modern standard, “Pure Imagination” is barely recognizable as Chris stretches out the melody with long silences before the bands turns it into another broken beat rock affair. Arthur’s “Front” features the guitarist playing melancholy arpeggios that sound like a tuned hand drum behind Ott’s freely floating sax melody. Overall, there are no bad cuts on here, everything provided is well considered and treated with the challenge of making something original and new, or nu, if you will.

Going back to the earliest days of the fabled ‘cutting contests’, much of the jazz world has always been based around astonishing technique and virtuosity. It takes a certain amount of bold risk and conviction to check your extended chops at the door and play music that utilizes open space and slow unwinding melodies, but that is the risk that the Cheap 3nsemble has taken on in this debut CD. The end result, combined with the fractured rocking moments, is a new (nu) kind of jazz, something that the millennial generation can call their own. This music constitutes a remarkable debut, lets hope we here more from the cheap 3some, much of their potential is probably still untapped.

SIMON SAMMUT Crossing - A Visual and Music Experience

Album · 2017 · Post-Fusion Contemporary
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Carmel
As humans, we have been enamored with acts of crossing, be it literally of figuratively, since the beginning of time. There is always a point where a person crosses into something, into a field or mindset of adventure, leaving the known limits of the world of point “A” and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm or mindset where the rules and limits are unknown to get to point “B.” Bassist and composer Simon Sammut uses the crossing as a point of inspiration, to bring meaning to the act through music. Using specific events in history and mythology, Sammut focuses his musical mind by using visual art by Anthony Catania that depicts the events related to crossing, to form the mechanics of his compositions. His new project is entitled, Crossing and it marks the combining of music and visual art, forming beauty and color. Both music and paintings expressing emotions and ideas, and in this project work together to create something truly striking and unique.

Sammut’s artistic pallet is vast on both the upright and electric bass. On the electric bass especially, his use of chords possesses a color pallet that far exceeds the usual spectrum of a bassist. He cites Jaco Pastorius as an influence, and like Jaco, Sammut’s ability to convey complex harmonies using chordal movement on the bass, is dynamic and adds a great deal to the music. Sammut additionally uses orchestral colors of voice, guitar, melodica, keyboards, percussion, electronics, brass and woodwinds. “The Tin Soldier’s Last Dance” displays this ability perfectly. Sammut’s chordal work on the bass is wonderful. The tune has a strong melody and a form that keeps the music marching forward.

On “Promethean Man,” Sammut’s inspiration is that we are not alone in our journey, but ultimately guided by a higher intelligence that is involved in our Crossing and change, the process brought to us through the world. Sammut’s upper register melody on the bass starts the melodic journey. Developing into programmed drums with keyboard swells and backing, Sammut continues to take the lead melodic role. Sammut’s bass solo is tuneful, with lines the build a story and again he uses chords in his solo in a inimitable way.

Sammut’s compositions are focused and provide a sonic delight for Crossing, taking the listener on a journey into the magical world music. The bassist’s impressionistic soundscapes contribute to the album’s success as well. Crossing is a consistently musical and entertaining listen from beginning to end. Highly Recommended, and an enlightened melding of art and sound.

ANTONELLA CHIONNA Antonella Chionna Meets Pat Battiston : Rylesonable

Album · 2017 · 21st Century Modern
Cover art 4.50 | 1 rating
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Carmel
An international collaboration between Boston based pianist, composer and creative “improvator” Patrick Battstone and Italian based phenom Antonella Chionna who began her career at the young age of 12 as a performing professional musician brings to the table a delightful ringing of epic proportions for the creative modern and avant-garde purveyor.

Rylesonable contains twelve tracks, recorded live in the studio to create a highly improvised sound and to capitalize on each musician’s improvisational in the moment skills. The result is breathtaking. The rapport is immediately evident with a collection of nine improvised tunes and two standards, and an original Gabriele di Franco tune with lyrics by Chionna.

“Under a Persian Sky” conjures improvisational qualities of a finely tuned instrument in the two lead musicians, both interacting, listening, and creating. Chionna evokes elongated notes for a dramatic effect, while bassist Kit Demos and Battstone provide a stately underpinning for Richard Poole on vibraphone to colorize with just the right amount of panache.

Tunes like “Sophisticated Lady,” offer a more percussive approach vocally, this is what is most striking about Chionna, her ability to utilize her voice as a full-fledged instrument, not afraid of bends and sharp-edged sounds. Like a fine weathered horn, she truly exhibits her talent as one of the instrumentalists versus a standards vocalist in the mix.

I must say Fender Rhodes is one of my all-time favorite instruments and when used in a jazz setting it becomes an even sweeter experience. Inspired by Plutot La Vie, the Rhodes brings “Rather Life,” to animation. Chionna and Battstone are brilliant together, more than performances, this is genuine emotions in play.

In finality, the selection “Lover Man/Nature Boy,” is poignant, dark and at times evocative. Battstone lays down a silky yet delicate accompaniment, as Chionna conveys in a moody darkened horn-like vocal approach, with a relaxed ala Miles phrasing approach. If you were to imagine Chionna as a horn, you truly would connect with the true message she is laying down. Her vocal has a playful Billie Holiday vibe, but resonates in dark chocolatey colors. Demos, Battstone and Poole adorn with respectful interaction, not overpowering Chionna for an engaging result. It’s wonderful when a vocalist phrases like a horn player, and Chionna certainly connects to this ideal. Supported by seasoned veterans certainly helps the effort tremendously for a cohesion of result.

A wonderful cross-continental collaboration, one I hope to hear again very soon, and with anticipation.

MICA BETHEA Stage 'N Studio

Album · 2017 · Big Band
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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The days of traveling big bands going from town to town and entertaining dancing patrons passed long ago, but in the last couple decades, big bands have been making a comeback as a vehicle for composer/arrangers to display what they can do with tone color and part arranging to achieve music that can not be done with a smaller ensemble. This leads us to Mica Bethea, an ambitious composer/arranger who works out of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Maybe its because Mica isn’t associated with NYC that his name is not as well known yet, but his new CD, “Stage ‘n Studio”, should help change that. This is an excellent modern big band recording with complex music that is both challenging, but also loads of fun too. Not only is Mica a top notch arranger for pieces by well known composers such as Herbie Hancock, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin, but his original compositions are often better than the aforementioned better known composers.

“Stage n’ Studio’ is a tale of two CDs in one package. CD one consists of eight tunes recorded in the studio, while CD two contains many of the same tunes, plus a couple different ones, recorded live. For my money, I think the live CD is the stronger of the two, not only is the playing more loose and energetic, but even the sound mix and production have a stronger congruence than CD one. The tunes on the two CDs are roughly 80% the same, but once again, where there are differences, the choice of tunes on CD two is better. The range of music on here is varied from fusion to bop, plus a couple ballads as well. Bethea sites Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones and Maria Schneider as influences, and you can hear all that, plus on “Frahm out of Nowhere” you can hear a hard driving Quincy Jones TV theme effect, and that is most definitely a complement. Other top tracks include, “Birth Rite”, a beautiful Bethea original ballad that shows the Gil Evans influence, as well as a taste of French composers like Maurice Ravel. The arrangement of Herbie’s well known funk classic “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” is a total gas, excellent music to crank up in the car as you beat the traffic. “Jonesin for Thad” is another top notch Micah original that swings like crazy as complex horn lines intersect in a tribute to the arranging style of Thad Jones.

I can’t say enough good things about this CD, this is very exciting music and highly recommended for fans of modern big band. Give Micah a chance to engage your ears (and dancing feets), I don’t think you will be disappointed.

CRAIG TABORN Craig Taborn And Ikue Mori : Highsmith

Album · 2017 · Avant-Garde Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
After the release of probably his best album ever, "Daylight Ghosts", earlier this year, pianist Craig Taborn comes with a radically different work - a free improvisation collection recorded by a duo of himself and downtown laptop artist Ikue Mori.

Mori started her musical career as a self-taught percussionist in the New York no-wave scene, but soon switched to drum machines and electronics. During the last decade, she played and recorded regularly with many avant-garde jazz renown artists, including pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, violinist Mark Feldman, harpist Zeena Parkins, vocalist-electronicist Maja Ratkje, guitarist Fred Frith and cellist Okkyung Lee among many others.

A jazz duo of pianist and electronics/lap top artist probably doesn't sound like a great idea, at least on paper. Surprisingly, "Highsmith" contains more accessible and better organized music than one could expect. It is a collection of free improvisations, recorded in studio soon after the duo played live at the Village Vanguard in 2016, and even if the music sounds like free improvs for sure, it doesn't remind one of a bulky mix of accidental piano sounds and spacey loops, that's for sure.

Taborn plays quite explosive piano passages radiating dark chamber avant-garde beauty successfully combining them with silence without loosing the music's dynamic. Mori improvises using electronic sounds and noises around Craig's more solid sound, filling the space with every-second-changing electronic wizardry. All album long, the listener can't stop marveling hearing this unbelievable masterful use of percussive, in moments abrasive sounds, as equal part of complex (if ascetic) jazzy improvisation.

Lots of things happen every single moment here and after the album's last sounds, there is not even a trace of feeling that the album was too dread, repetitive or just openly boring. Successfully avoiding both formal electronics monotony, and cheap spacey looping tricks, "Highsmith" represents one really rare example of electro-acoustic improvisational music symbiosis which isn't too formal, and contains a lot of life in it, and being really experimental can attract more than a few dedicated listeners.

Interesting new side illustration for Taborn, one of the better recordings for Mori for sure.

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BOBBY HUTCHERSON Live at Montreux

Live album · 1974 · Hard Bop
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Steve Wyzard
LIVE MASTERPIECE

It's now been a full year since we lost the late, great Bobby Hutcherson, and for all those who enjoy his acclaimed mid-1960's albums, you really owe it to yourself to track down his 1974 album Live at Montreux. Not only is it Bobby's best release of the 1970's, but it's also one of the best (in a very crowded field) live albums in that decade by ANYBODY.

Recorded at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival and originally released only in Japan and Europe, this disc restores the full 51-minute set to its fiery glory ("Farallone" did not appear on the LP). No ballads, just two long Hutcherson compositions not available anywhere else, and two of the best by trumpeter Woody Shaw. One awe-inspiring solo follows another, and the crowd's response is electric! Don't let the "no name" rhythm section discourage you: they all keep things moving and acquit themselves admirably, especially drummer Larry Hancock who continuously threatens to steal the show.

Since being restored and reissued in 1994, this album's availability has been "spotty" to say the least. With great recorded sound and phenomenal performances, Live at Montreux should be far better known than it is, especially by Hutcherson and Shaw fans. If you are even mildly familiar with the performers and this one crosses your path, spare no expense!

DANIEL DICKINSON A Gathering Foretold

Album · 2015 · Post Bop
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Carmel
A Gathering Foretold is an extremely melodious release from New York-based alto saxophonist Daniel Dickinson. Even though this is his debut outing, Dickinson plays with maturity and merges the historical language of jazz and all the right elements of modern jazz music. Dickinson has assembled a prodigious crew of musicians that play off each other, finding common ground between all the parts and creating an organic hybrid that plays to what sounds like a longtime working ensemble, yet is a well-organized session. A portfolio of Dickinson’s own compositions and arrangements, including original compositions by Christian Sands (Voyage to Somewhere) and Michael Dease (Cry of the Wolf).

Dease’s composition and the opening "Cry of the Wolf " takes its time building and then rises to the five horns playing the melody to create a beautiful sound. Dease stands out with a solid improvisation that utilizes the upper register of the trombone. The interplay between Bowlus’ piano comping figures and Ulysses Owens, Jr.’s drum pattern is a fine example of groups listening and melding to form a musical motif while Dease shapes his lines to a simmering boil.

The title track is composed by Dickinson and is an impactful track that displays both his compositional skills and his able improvisational skills. Dickinson finds inspiration during his solo in Owens’ drum rhythms, making him more than just support here, but the two work together to build and shape the solo statement and that communication is integral to the integrity of this fine album.

Even though everyone in the ensemble is a talented soloist, the emphasis is on listening to each other. “Voyage to Somewhere” features Christian Sands at the piano and as the composer. A relaxed likeable mid-tempo selection with a haunting piano figure is enhanced by Owen's drums and Dickinson’s nimble alto solo. Dickinson’s lines match Sands chordal colors and his creative rhythmic palate serves as a durable launching pad for creative explorations as a soloist.

“Darn That Dream” is the standard on the date and features Dickinson on clarinet. His tasteful clarinet playing has subtle elements of the blues and bop, all conveyed with unbridled swing. His relaxed soloing style is sure in melodic motion, strong in time and impressive in overall flow.

Although Dickinson is the leader and composed most of the material, A Gathering Foretold is by any measure a group effort, with each member given ample room to extemporize and the group works together to accentuate the various melodies and soloists. The respect and friendship between the players is indispensable, resulting in a splendid date with much to offer even the most demanding jazz aficionado and sensitive audiophile.

"BROTHER" JACK MCDUFF Check This Out

Live album · 1972 · Soul Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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“Check this Out” is yet one more in a seemingly endless supply of soul jazz records put out by “Brother’ Jack McDuff. Fortunately, in this case a vast quantity does not imply a drop off in quality, instead, despite how many records he put out, you can almost always count on McDuff for a worthwhile spin. “Check this Out” came out in 1972, which was the same year Jack released his wild funky, and somewhat experimental “Heatin System”. “Check” is not quite as out there as “System”, but there is still plenty of hot solos and well arranged tunes to make this one a worthwhile addition to your McDuff collection.

It’s a rather large group that Jack has assembled here, with three sax players providing a mini big band effect, plus congas and guitar, while McDuff supplies the bass on all but one cut via his B3 foot pedals. Side one kicks off with a wide open energetic blues based jam, followed by the well known ballad, “Georgia On My Mind”. Jack handles the melody on “Georgia”, while the horn players provide an interesting re-harmonization of the familiar chord changes. This side closes with the modern funk sounds of “Soul Yodel”, on which Jack’s foot work is replaced by the electric bass of Richard Davis, who supplies a syncopated groove reminiscent of WAR’s “Slipping into Darkness”.

Side two opens with an unexpected original 60s flavored optimistic art pop song with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Middle Class Folk Song”. This one bears some resemblance to the Carpenter’s “Sing a Song”, which is not a bad thing. This is followed by another up tempo hard bop groove before the album closes out with some classic soul jazz slow burn blues. All throughout this album there are plenty of good solos. With three sax players on board, its not always clear who is playing what, but most likely the hottest sax solos probably come from Jack’s longtime sidekick, “Red" Holloway. If McDuff’s burning solos sound familiar, its because he more or less invented the solo language of the B3 as it was used by many 70s rock and RnB players from Gregg Rollie to Jon Lord, and just about everyone else too. We often hear of Jimmy Smith as a major B3 influence, but his high speed bop/blues lines did not adapt to rock as well as McDuff’s grittier hard punchy riffs. Plus McDuff often had a bit of overdrive distortion to his sound, which added to his rock appeal.

STAN GETZ Blue Skies

Album · 1995 · Post Bop
Cover art 5.00 | 1 rating
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Steve Wyzard
A QUIET MIRACLE

Why did Concord Records wait 13 years to release this magnificent album? Recorded in 1982 at the same sessions that produced the Pure Getz album, Blue Skies did not see release until 1995, four years after Stan's death. The label did an impeccable job with a superlative package, a slipcover, and an endorsement from Stan's son Steve, but the mystery remains as to why it was held back.

Don't for a moment believe this is an "outtakes" album. The six tracks work perfectly together and the four standards all figured prominently in concert performance over the last 10 years of Stan's life. While listening to Blue Skies, adjectives such as light, airy, ruminative, and leisurely may come to mind, but don't dismiss this as an easy-listening, MOR album. Yes, the emphasis is on beautiful ballads, but the uptempo Jim McNeely composition "There We Go" will quickly awaken those who may find themselves "drifting off". Pianist McNeely easily receives just as much soloing space as Stan does, and bassist Marc Johnson makes major contributions throughout, with solos on three tracks. Accusations of austerity are brushed aside with the whimsical take of the title track: the group is clearly having a good time.

Perhaps knowing Stan didn't live to see this album released lends the music a sense of haunted nostalgia. Drummer Billy Hart's brushes are all over these sessions, but that doesn't entirely explain the ethereal, summer-afternoon stillness that's almost palpable. Comparisons with Pure Getz will find Blue Skies more introverted and quieter, yet this album seems far more definitive and intrinsic to Stan's personal style. There are no dirges on Blue Skies, but anyone looking for an aural punch in the gut like Pure Getz's "On the Up and Up" have come to the wrong place.

Posthumous albums still get a bad rap. If the recordings were so good, the skeptic wonders, why weren't they released immediately? There are thousands of reasons/explanations/excuses, and the situations may vary, but when dealing with an iconic yet polarizing figure like Stan Getz, the answers grow even more complicated. Stan recorded so much with a multitude of players in a multitude of locations for a multitude of labels in widely varying genres. To this day he still has a devoted following, but his erratic recorded legacy has not made him hip with the trendsetters and namedroppers. That we still have in print today a quiet masterpiece like Blue Skies (despite its inauspicious start and late release date) is quite simply a minor miracle. Regardless of availability or popularity, this will always be an album to cherish, and one for the ages.

JOHN ABERCROMBIE 39 Steps

Album · 2013 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.75 | 2 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
SUBTLE, CALM, MEASURED

In a world of perpetual change, it's nice to know there are some things you can continue to count on. Take, for instance, the much-discussed "ECM Records sound": the haunted, melancholy, "wide open spaces" atmosphere that can be heard as far back as its early-1970s releases. If it's beautiful, autumnal, heartland, Sunday-afternoon chamber jazz you're looking for, you've come to the right place with longtime ECM guitarist John Abercrombie's 39 Steps.

Recorded in April 2013 with Marc Copland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass, and Joey Baron on drums, 39 Steps is much more, well, "down to earth" than his last few releases. Albums such as Class Trip, The Third Quartet, Wait Till You See Her, and Within a Song were more on the noir-ish, late-night side of Abercrombie's guitar-playing spectrum, while 39 Steps will prove to be much more compatible with those who enjoy the classic ECM sound. It should be stated from the outset that those looking for more of his fiery 1970s soloing or his 1980s experimental freak-outs may find this album somewhat pale in comparison. Tracks such as "Vertigo", "Bacharach", "Greenstreet", and "As It Stands" are best described as subdued, peaceful, or even relaxing. The compositions are strong, the solos are solid, and interest is always sustained, but this is not music that will disturb your neighbors. Copland's two compositions, "LST" and "Spellbound", are both much busier and simultaneously more mysterious. Long-time Abercrombie listeners are sure to enjoy "Another Ralph's". Quoting directly from "Ralph's Piano Waltz" (which appeared on both 1975's Timeless and 1986's Current Events), this song has Abercrombie out in front rather than just another player in the quartet. While the soloing spotlight is consistently shared amongst all the players, 39 Steps remains unequivocally a John Abercrombie album. "Shadow of a Doubt" is a group improv (another ECM trademark), and "39 Steps" is a mini-epic, appropriately summing up all that's come before. An offbeat, jesting cover of "Melancholy Baby" closes the album, leaving a smile on the face of all but the most determined listeners. And after a not-too-long (59:42) meandering journey, we're right back where we started.

With all the references to past glories, there's no doubt many will consider this a "long-past-his-prime, career-achievement" album. As a 30+ year listener to Abercrombie's fluid fretwork, I can only urge others to give the introspective and atmospheric textures of 39 Steps a real chance. Newbies may not be impressed, but they are gladly referred to the earlier albums (such as the two mentioned above) of one of the greatest jazz guitarists of our time. While 39 Steps may be lacking in intensity, it more than compensates in true artistry, and not just on cloudy Sunday afternoons.

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