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jazz music reviews (new releases)

BLAZIN' QUARTET Sleeping Beauty

Album · 2021 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 3.98 | 2 ratings
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There is certainly a lot of great new jazz coming from NYC, London and LA these days, but you may also want to check out some more unexpected sources such as the Balkans, where drummer/keyboardist Srdjan Ivanovic pulls a lot of his inspiration for his ongoing ensemble, Blazin Quartet. Srdjan describes his Balkan influence as being a place where the East meets the West and then is expressed through the freedom of jazz. His latest CD, “Sleeping Beauty”, bears these Balkan melodic influences as well as a cool European atmosphere brought to the project from the various other band members who hail from Greece, Italy and France. This CD bears some similarities to some of the best work from the ECM catalog. Srdjan’s abstract approach to the drums may remind some of Paul Motian, while Federico Casagrande’s relaxed guitar work sometimes recalls what John Abercrombie often brought to the label. Trumpater Andreas Polyogopoulos, bassist Mihail Ivanov and guest flautist Magic Malik (on some tracks) round out the rest of the band.

The “Intro” takes on a Silent Way vibe and is accompanied by the sound of the morning birds outside the band’s country recording studio. This track sets a perfect vibe for the rest of this album which relies on sensitive group interplay rather than jazz solo grandstanding. The different musicians on here do take solos here and there, but usually against a conversational background that breaks down clichés and expectations. Some of the best tracks, such as “Guchi” and “Rues de Balkans” get somewhat heated as the entire band solos freely while being careful not to step on each other’s toes. Srdjan claims that ‘Melody is king’, and backs that claim by taking on two classic Ennio Morricone melodies, “The Man with the Harmonica” and “A L’Aube Du Cinquieme Jour”. Both of which are given Blazin Quartet’s unique and personal treatment.

The album ends with the sound of the night birds outside their studio and thereby closes the circle of this musical journey. “Sleeping Beauty” lives up to its title, there is much to be found here, but you may need to listen closely to catch it, this is subtle music, sensitive in a way, but hardly devoid of motion and energy.

MATT PANAYIDES Field Theory

Album · 2021 · 21st Century Modern
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Today’s installment in the ongoing series on jazz musicians who deserve wider recognition brings us to guitarist Matt Panayides. Matt spends a lot of his time in NYC as well as South Korea and China where he works with some of the top musicians in each location. Matt has been leading his own groups and composing original music since 2016 which leads us to his latest album, “Field Theory”. Matt’s approach is high energy as he draws from post bop, jazz rock and free jazz in his solos and in his compositions. Matt can fire off high speed runs that never sound gratuitously flashy, and he provides enough interesting twists and turns so that expected clichés are avoided. Despite his well developed technique, there is something appealingly rough and gritty about his playing that recalls Michael Gregory Jackson and the youthful version of John McLaughlin. Helping Panayides out on this album are synth reed player Matt Vashlishan, tenor sax player Rich Perry, Robert Sabin on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. These guy’s credits as accompanists range from Wadada Leo Smith to Norah Jones and Lee Konitz, plus many more. Vashlishan’s contributions on synth reed in particular add some interesting colors to the group’s sound.

“Field Theory” opens with the tough modern hard bop of “Kite Flying”, but from there Matt keeps things unpredictable as the next three tracks mix modern jazz with arrangements that may remind some of avante garde math rock. Title track, “Field Theory”, in particular has a rock like energy that has Panayides putting some distortion and overdrive on his ‘axxe’. “Energy Mover” is just that as the band swings into high octane neo be-bop with rapid fire solos from the three man front line. The last half of the album wanders a bit as the band swerves from short free jazz segments to folkish tunes and a couple more open ended fusion jams. A big plus throughout the whole album is drummer Mark Ferber’s beats that recall Jack DeJohnette’s ability to swing while smacking a rocking backbeat at the same time. If you are familiar with Jack’s playing on Miles Live at the Fillmore you’ll know what I mean.

Matt Panayides’ guitar has enough ‘shredding’ to appeal to the fusion fans, but also enough swing and melodic invention for the jazzers. His compositions are complex and full of unexpected twists and are very much on top of what is happening in jazz today. Overall this CD displays an excellent balance between clever intellect and hard workin sweat.

GARY BARTZ Gary Bartz & Maisha : Night Dreamer Direct-To-Disc Sessions

Album · 2020 · Fusion
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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snobb
Sax player Gary Bartz was a celebrity of sorts half-a-century ago when he played on the forefront of the then young American fusion and post bop scene. Seasoned veteran doesn't record too often but still is active today.

Maisha is a fashionable British African fusion band, playing relaxed and sunny-bright music around burgeoning London scenes. Combination of the two is presented on "Night Dreamer" - vinyl-size long album, recorded in 'popular in 80's' direct-to-disc techniques in Dutch Haarlem (not American Harlem).

Starting from the opener, "Harlem - Haarlem", the listener can enjoy the usual Maisha sound, just less relaxed, better framed and more energized. Or - Bartz's fusion, made from Maisha's African influenced jazz. To be honest, "Maisha featuring Gary Bartz" would be a better tag to this album than tagging it as Gary Bartz's album as leader as the album is currently titled.

The sound is great, Bartz sounds warm and soulful and the music is positive and comfortable in general, but quite soon one can feel like you are listening to just one long song. Repetitive rhythms with no striking tempo, rhythm or tonal changes make this short album sound a bit like a long live jam without any specific direction. Some short pieces can be accepted as nice examples of modern revitalization of fusion from the early 70s, but unfortunately, in full it doesn't work as well.

Here we have two great artists coming together to sound much like musical wall paper, it isn't what one would expect from such a collaboration.

MIKE SCOTT Collecting Things

Album · 2020 · Soul Jazz
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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Mike Scott is a 20 year veteran of the Los Angelas music scene and every ten years or so he puts out a CD of original music. His latest, “Collecting Things”, is his third album as a leader and finds him performing an eclectic, but relaxed set of hard bop, blues, Latin jazz and folk rock instrumentals. Scott has that Jim Hall influence that we tend to associate with the west coast, plus a good dose of Wes Montgomery’s blues jazz. In a recent interview, Pat Metheny complained that too many current guitarists sound like himself, well Pat would be happy to know that Scott does not sound like Pat, or any other guitarists with that contemporary soft sound. Instead, Mike’s attack has some welcome bite to it, somewhat like John Schofield, but without a trace of John’s well known clichés. Helping Mike out here we also have the keyboards of Joe Bagg, plus Darek Oles on bass and Jake Reed on drums.

Mike has a background in classical guitar, and his training in expressive finger picking pays off on the opening classically flavored “Sol Minor Prelude”. This is followed by three hard bop/blues tracks with “Jack’s Dilemma” achieving a nirvana like tranquil balance with its very cool space blues vibe reminiscent of “All Blues” and “Killer Joe”. “On a Clear Day” is the one cover on the album and it is given a Latin rhythm which also applies to the next two numbers. Mike concludes the album with a couple soulful rock ballads that have a Curtis Mayfield or Bobby Womack vibe to them.

“Collecting Things” is one of those albums that will probably slip by a lot of people. Mike’s playing is somewhat understated, but he is very musical and repeat listens will surely play to this CD’s advantage. The aforementioned “Jack’s Dilemma” is a great song for showing Mike’s strengths. A simple melodic statement packed with a lot of soul and delivered with perfectly patient timing.

STICK MEN With Gary Husband : Owari

Live album · 2020 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Although already powerful enough in their original trio format, as of late Stick Men have been augmenting their line up with special guests. Such is the case on their new live album, “Owari”, where they are joined by well known fusion keyboardist Gary Husband, who has been showing up on albums by artists such as John McLaughlin, Alan Holdsworth, Jack Bruce and many others. Gary makes for an excellent addition to the band as he blends in effortlessly as if he has been with this group from the beginning. This recording turned out to be a very special one time performance as the band’s planned one month tour of East Asia got reduced by Covid concerns to just one show in Nagoya Japan. The end result is a band very hyped and in focus for this one time happening, and the excitement and adrenaline come through on this very well produced live recording.

As usual, Stck Men are wearing their King Crimson influences unashamedly on their sleeve as they launch into well composed prog rock with plenty of metal and Euro funk flavors that recall KC at their best, particularly albums like “Starless and Bible Black” and the live “USA”. When the band launches into “Larks Tongue in Aspic Part II” it sounds so natural you will find yourself assuming it was going to come up anyway. Most of these heavy syncopated rocking tracks are instrumental, but Tony Levin takes the vocal mic on “Prog Noir”. Tony has a great natural voice and you have to wonder why he didn’t get the vocal job in KC over the somewhat nasal Adrian Belew. Along with the rock numbers you also get a few ambient improvisations. Some of these are better than others, but the best is the dark crawl of “Swimming in T”, on which the band really locks into a one mind performance.

I was a little surprised that there was not as much soloing from either Markus Reuter or Gary Husband as I would have expected, both are capable of hair raising fusion style onslaughts, but I suppose a tight ensemble sound was the goal here, and to that end they succeeded in a big way. “Owari” is one of the best prog rock albums for 2020, and it also has plenty of cross-over appeal to fans of modern jazz fusion and interesting instrumental music in general.

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VIKTOR TÓTH Viktor Tóth & Mahasimbadavi Players : Lamu

Live album · 2018 · Eclectic Fusion
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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js
Jazz and rap coming together should be no surprise to anyone. Jazz musicians have been rapping since the turn of the previous century, Louis Jordan was known for his hip poetry and so was Duke Ellington, which brings us to this outstanding rap/jazz fusion CD from Viktor Toth’s Mahasimbadvi Players titled “Lamu”. Toth’s players are an international group that features Toth on sax, Bart Maris on trumpet, Simple One on lyrics and poetry, Matyas Szandi on bass and Hamid Drake and David Hodek on drums. Does anything sound more jazz than a boppin alto sax and trumpet front line. Toth and Maris’ energetic harmonies and unisons recall similar classic frontlines like Diz and Bird, Ornette and Don Cherry, and Dolphy and Booker Little. The Mahasimbadvi rhythm section provides kinetic support, often with African and Afro-Brazilian grooves, but also with forays into hip-hop and funk. The way in which this ensemble can combine an earthy backbone with avant-garde tendencies may remind some of The Art Ensemble of Chicago or The World Saxophone Quartet.

The make or break for this album is the rapping of Simple One, who comes through by perfectly balancing his role with the other musicians. If you were afraid that the rapping would dominate this recording, rest assured your fears are unwarranted. In fact, I found myself wishing Simple One had been given a little more room to go off. The man has a beautiful flow that is very syncopated and just as rhythmically complex as his fellow musicians. His word play is both thoughtful and humorous and holds up well to repeated listens. If you know your classic hip-hop than you will recognize when Simple One pulls out an old Q Tip audience call and response, “Can I Kick It …”, which the audience gladly calls back on. During some of his raps the horn players pull out Herbie Hancock’s modernized intro to “Watermelon Man”, which provides a very Africanized backdrop for our MC. Speaking of MC, Simple One also plays the part of the classic ‘emcee’ by giving props to the musicians and providing some humorous interplay with the audience. The musicians also get plenty of space to go off with solos and interlocking group rhythms. Toth has a hard edged alto sound that recalls Steve Coleman and Jackie McLean, and Bart Maris takes a very no gimmicks approach to the trumpet that recalls the aforementioned Booker Little, as well as Marquis Hill.

GENE HARRIS AstralSignal

Album · 1974 · RnB
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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In the early to mid 70s, many a jazz musician was drawn to both the growing impact of the new funk groove, as well as the psychedelic sound borne from the 60s. Gene Harris was no exception as his “AsrtralSignal” album from 1974 bears trademarks from that groovy early 70s era, which is also reflected in the very ‘cosmic’ title of the album. Gene Harris was no stranger to mixing jazz with dance rhythms, in fact his entire career was built around a solid reputation as one of the top soul jazz artists from the mid 50s until the 70s and beyond. With “AstralSignals”, Gene took things one step further from his gospel based roots to embrace the new funk style of Sly Stone and James Brown. On this funk foundation, Harris layered multiple horns, vocals and electronic instruments to build his imaginative arrangements.

The album opens with a heavily reverbed cosmic statement from Gene before we launch into an exotic instrumental topped with wordless vocals. Next up, a very funky synth intro leads the band into Sly Stone’s well known song chant about racial name calling. After a laid back instrumental with more wordless vocals, Harris closes out side one with some of his signature gospel riffs on the piano in a double tracked solo performance.

Side two kicks off with a rockin instrumental version of Credence’s “Green River”. On Chicago’s “Beginnings”, Gene handles the lead vocals and sheds some new tone colors on this well known number. This side closes out with some more funk-jazz jams with Harvey Mason’s “Higga Boom” being a real highlight. This album has its ups and downs, but the ups make it well worth it for fans of funk jazz, exotic lounge music, rare groove and other jazz related crate digging.

HIROMASA SUZUKI ロック・ジョイント琵琶 ~ 組曲 ふることふみ (Rock Joint Biwa ~ Kumikyoku Furukotofumi)

Album · 1972 · Fusion
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Igor91
Hiromasa Suzuki's Rock Joint Biwa is one of the great, obscure jazz rock / fusion albums to emerge out of 1970's Japan. The LP offers up an interesting combination of jazz, psychedelic rock, and traditional Japanese instrumentation (biwa, wadaiko). The results are impressive, unique, and never boring. The psychedelic factor is moderate, but is enough to push the music into mind-stimulating directions. All the musicians deliver fantastic performances, particularly the guitar work of Kiyoshi Sugimoto. He can do jazz and heavy psych with equal impact and style. The injections of traditional Japanese music is masterfully done, and never feels forced or awkward. Being a big fan of early 1970's fusion, this was an enjoyable listen for me. I have been exploring the Japanese branch of this sub-genre, and this was a great find. I highly recommend this album to like-minded travelers. I will be searching out an affordable CD copy of Suzuki's following album, Rock Joint Cither – Silk Road, which is another lost fusion gem.

CARLOS SANTANA Love Devotion Surrender (with John McLaughlin)

Album · 1973 · Fusion
Cover art 3.78 | 20 ratings
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Love Devotion and Surrender” is an odd one in the Carlos Santana discography. Released in 1973 when jazz fusion had hit a popularity peak and had enticed rockers like Carlos and Jeff Beck to take part in the genre, this will be one of a few full fusion albums that Carlos will release during this time. Santana is joined on here by the flamboyant John McLaughlin as they pay tribute to both John Coltrane and Sri Chimnoy. The spiritual jazz of Coltrane and Pharoh Sanders is a big influence on here, but so is the macho rockin jazz fusion of the day, making for a sometimes clumsy hybrid.

The album opens with Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, which is given a huge electric mystical 70s hippie sound that is attractive at first, but as McLaughlin and Santana flail at each other with ill-advised lick trading exercises, the track becomes more of an athletic workout than something more musical. Fortunately this is the only song on which they ‘battle’ each other in this fashion. “Naima” is played acoustically and in very good taste, but their performance doesn’t offer anything new to this often recorded ballad. Side one closes out with “The Life Divine”, on which the two guitarists get to stretch out without the annoying frantic lick trading of the opening cut. Many great drummers are credited on this album, but there is no doubt that it is Billy Cobham on “Life Divine”, his distinctive drum roll makes it obvious.

Side two is taken up mostly with “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord”, possibly the best track on the album and one in which the two guitarists are allowed to stretch out unfettered and finally organist Larry Young is allowed to take a ride. Larry eschews the more rockin style of his band mates and turns in the most interesting solo on the album. Unfortunately, the last part of his solo is almost buried by McLaughlin’s insistent rhythm playing. The album closes with another short ballad featuring McLaughlin’s rather pedestrian piano playing.

The opening of this album promises good things to come with its big open psychedelic sound and spirited energy, but as things develop, many of the solos are not that interesting as they lean heavily on repeating rock riffs delivered with the subtlety of a sledge hammer. All of the performers could have done well to pay attention to Larry Young’s approach as he swells in and out of the mix adding tamboura like colors that blend well with the electric guitars and the multitude of percussion. Very much a product of its time, “Love, Devotion and Surrender” is for those who like the excesses that marked what was both good and bad musically in the 70s.

KENNY WHEELER All the More

Album · 1997 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.25 | 2 ratings
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Steve Wyzard
OBSCURE MASTERPIECE

Recorded in 1993, mixed in 1994, but not released until 1997, Kenny Wheeler's All the More is nothing short of a quartet masterpiece. Sadly, even many from Kenny's worldwide following have not heard this album, as it only appeared on an obscure Italian label, Soul Note. Not only that, but it was competing in the marketplace with the much higher-profile ECM album, Angel Song, with which it shares a common composition, "Nonetheless". The two albums will not be compared as they are very different, but I really wish All the More had been better marketed and distributed, as it is truly one of Wheeler's best albums over a long and checkered career.

This album's instrumentation (trumpet/piano/bass/drums) should remind many of another well-known Wheeler album. Backed by Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, 1976's Gnu High first brought Wheeler to international attention in his mid-40's. All the More is a much longer and more fiery album than Gnu High, and Wheeler plays far more trumpet than flugelhorn. Pianist John Taylor and drummer Joe LaBarbera have backed many different performers over the years, but have never sounded as impassioned as they do on this album. I was not familiar with bassist Furio di Castri until hearing this performance, but he more than holds his own and makes a major contribution throughout. The ever-generous Wheeler makes sure everybody receives extensive time in the solo spotlight. There's even room for a Bill Evans tribute, LaBarbera's composition "Kind of Bill".

The multi-faceted work of Kenny Wheeler includes free jazz, avant-garde jazz, and a huge pile of compositions for both big band and much smaller ensembles. His biggest sellers are sometimes dismissed with pejoratives such as "pensively lyrical" or "ethereally haunted". While it's possible to understand where these critics are coming from, none of these adjectives apply to All the More, which is not only one of his best, but also one of the most significant (in spite of its obscurity) jazz albums of the late 1990's. The fact it didn't have the distribution of an ECM album makes it harder to find, but the search will be more than repaid to fans of the players involved. Let it also be known that this album shares a composition ("Mark Time") with Wheeler's other masterpiece, 1984's Double Double You.



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