Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Bassist Mark Wade & Trio : "Moving Day"



The bassist Mark Wade is a new name to me, but after hearing the warm booming sound of his bass on his sophomore album Moving Day, be assured I will follow his career more closely. In a world that has so many accomplished musicians it is often difficult to separate yourself from your peers. To have a voice that is all your own is important, but just as important is that indefinable quality that allows you to magically make a connection with your audience. Wade seems to have found that happy medium. He is an orchestral as well as a jazz player and teaches at the Jazz Studies program at Leigh University. His debut album Event Horizon from 2015 was well received.

On Moving Day Mark’s rich, burnished bass is complimented by his sensitive trio mates Tim Harrison on piano and Scott Neumann on drums. Together these three present seven of Wade’s compositions and two reimagined standards that simply delight and satisfy. By his own admission this album is less abstract and more personal than his last, drawing from his experiences.

The opening and title track “Moving Day” starts with a repeating piano motif over which Wade plays a moving melody. The composition captures the anxiety and anticipation of moving to a new place. Harrison’s piano has a light airy feel, dancing with hope, and Neumann’s splashing cymbals and rolling toms capture the organized chaos of moving. Wade’s fleet bass solo is agitated and full of excitement, but with an underlying sense of future promise. His articulation is so strong, clear and uplifting that even at its most boisterous you are carried away with its authenticity of feeling.

“Wide Open,” another Wade composition that utilizes a repeating motif, is a driving song that features odd meters, shifting rhythmic patterns and ascending piano lines. Harrison’s piano meanders over the changing time all the while building to an apex. Wade’s bass is featured on a percolating solo, while accentuated by the rolling tom and dashing cymbal work of Neumann, before once again ascending to the coda and a repeat of the original motif.

You can hear a bit of Wade’s classical leanings on “The Bells,” an interestingly impressionistic piece that integrates a melody fragment from Debussy’s “La Mer” (The Sea). Wade weaves the fragment into his own jazz rhythm with starts and stops that have their own internal dynamic. Opening with a declaratory piano intro, it then morphs into a more sauntering composition, with an ebullient walking bass line by Wade. Suddenly the tempo shifts and it’s like we enter a zone, an aural seascape made up of piano, bowed bass and cymbals with its own organic feel. The music becomes declarative, as Wade takes a deeply introspective and free sounding solo of placid serenity, before the group switches back again to a more defined tempo. Harrison’s piano is relentless, like a sea surge in his repeated motif at the close.

Where Wade seems to shine is his reimagining of songs from the canon. On his “Another Night in Tunisia,” a play on Dizzy Gillespie’s famous composition, he and his trio are not content to swing it in straight four time, but wind up finding ways to cut it up with multiple variations that often involve changing tempos that they execute flawlessly.

Wade puts a similarly interesting twist to the standard “Autumn Leaves,” which he cleverly juxtaposes with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage" to great effect. The bassist effectively bends and slides his strings creating controlled deep glissandos of sound that are quite impressive. Harrison’s piano has a crystalline shimmer to it.

Wade’s other compositions include a ballad about the promise and excitement of budding love affair “Something of a Romance;” the evocative “Midnight in the Cathedral,” a musical, third stream stroll through a Cathedral at night where we are given a chance to listen to Wade’s concept of the universality of music from the medieval to the modern; and the lively New Orlean’s inspired march “The Quarter,” with its bouncy drum cadence by Neumann and Wade’s buoyant bass lines.

The closing composition is titled “The Fading Rays of Sunlight” and is the perfect way to end this impressive and enjoyable album. Wade and Harrison play an ascending melody line like the last shimmering rays of a setting sun, luminous and warm. Neumann offers a steady but subdued rhythmic sway as Harrison plays an uplifting solo that finds him at his most lyrical. Wade’s final bass solo is nimble, joyous and brimming with possibilities. It’s as if the fading rays of today’s sunset give promise to   tomorrows’ anticipated sun rise. The light dims, and the colors deepen in tone and majesty, but the promise of a return is implicit. The group ends in a triumvirate of satisfied calm.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Multi-Instrumentalist John Surman's "Invisible Threads"

John Surman's Invisible Threads  ECM 
The multi-instrumentalist John Surman has been on my radar since I first heard his resolute baritone and lilting soprano saxophone work on John McLaughlin’s superb album Extrapolation from 1969. At the time I made note of his playing which could be fiercely aggressive, dartingly ephemeral or wrenchingly poignant. His baritone work on "It's Funny" from that album is just a tour de force of expression. He was clearly someone to follow. 

Over the years I enjoyed his expressive forays into ambient soundscapes, progressive jazz and abstract minimalism on such albums as his The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon with the drummer Jack DeJohnette from 1981, or his work with the late great guitarist John Abercrombie, the bassist Marc Johnson and the drummer Peter Erskine from the 1992 album November. 

His unique command of baritone and soprano saxophones, synthesizers and the difficult to master bass clarinet made him an in-demand player across the European continent.  The Englishman from county Devon eventually found a home in Norway where he now resides, but no matter how eclectic his work became he never lost his sound, a sound that at its core is based on English and Celtic folk music. He has recorded over forty albums as a leader and been on over a hundred recordings as a sideman. No matter how abstract the music or how unusual the setting,  listening to John Surman play is like taking a stroll through the English countryside.

His latest album Invisible Threads on ECM, is scheduled to be released in January 19th. The master multi-instrumentalist offers a suite of music on twelve original compositions, all but one composed by Surman. On this drumless, bassless trio, Surman is joined by the Brazilian pianist Nelson Ayres, who he was first introduced to by the drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the classically trained percussionist, vibraphonist and marimba player Rob Waring, who is New York born and now an associate professor at Oslo Academy of Music.

The pastoral quality of Surman’s music is evident from the first feathery notes of his soprano saxophone on the opener “At First Sight.” Ayres and Waring compliment his musings with deft and nuanced accompaniment.  

“Autumn Nocturne” is at first a slow dirge-like composition that starts with a solo piano intro by Wares before Waring’s tubular vibraphone enters. When Surman’s soprano is heard, the composition turns lighter, more uplifting with a Tango-like rhythm that the three musicians skillful weave patterns through like a troupe of accomplished dance partners.

The impressionistic “Within the Clouds” is a delightful display of the remarkable control, imagination and fluidity of John Surman on the bass clarinet. Clearly in a class by himself on this instrument, he conjures up images of weightless suspension using the deep throated woody sound of this marvelous instrument. The delicate piano vibes accompaniment is reminiscent of the work of Gary Burton and Chick Corea on their seminal work “Crystal Silence.” Just take a moment to immerse yourself in the beauty of the sounds these three create. It’s is like a musical meditation.

“Bynweed” is another pretty ballad of Surman’s and a clear example of his tendency to find folk-like melodies and expand on them. Ayres piano is delicate and willowy, Waring’s vibes have a clarity and tone that resonates like tubular bells. Surman’s sinewy soprano comes in late and immediately brings to mind a scene of horseback riding through an English pasture.

Surman’s evocative bass clarinet returns on the haunting “On Still Waters.”  His ability to let the deep woody tone of his instrument hover in the air like a dense morning fog on a still lake is remarkable. Ayres and Waring play in step with him adding a light, mist-like envelope for him to play in. The three have an amazing ability to create atmospheric surroundings that transport you to the place they are describing musically.

The remaining repertoire includes the beautiful “Another Reflection” with Surman on soprano; “The Admiral,” an Olde English seafaring tale with Surman on his bellowing baritone saxophone and Waring on his distinctive marimba. Ayres plays the processional melody majestically maintaining the pace and melody throughout as Waring and Surman harmonize around the nautical theme.

“Pitanga Pitomba” is a reference to two fruit trees found native to Brazil. Waring’s mellow marimba gives this one a distinctively playful feel and Wares piano opens more expansively and his interplay with the saxophonist is special. Surman chooses his soprano on this composition playing in a most light-hearted manner. His performance is Pan-like; a joyful dance through a magical forest.
On pianist Ayres’ composition “Summer Song,” we get another fanciful foray into the joys of a season, this one celebrating Summer. The group interplay is at its most unified here as the three musicians waltz around in empathetic simpatico.

The descriptive “Concentric Circles” is a study in converting geometry into music. The trio swirl their individual voices creating eddy currents of repeating motion. Surman’s baritone repeats circular patterns as Waring and Ayres delicately weave their two percussive instruments into complimentary vortices of sounds. The three create a whirlwind of circular motion that is somehow harmonically complimentary.

“Stoke Dameral” is a parish in the county of Devon, England and for Surman is a reference to home. The baritone’s lustrous sound that Surman produces here is so uplifting for such a deep registered instrument. He plays the lumbering instrument with such delicacy and lightness that it is hard to believe it is a baritone at times.


I’ve always loved the deep gutsy sound of a baritone saxophone, it is often used as a lower register adjunct to other instruments that play the melody. In John Surman’s hands, we hear an instrument released from its traditional role and expanded into a truly marvelous vehicle for expression. His playing on the closer “Invisible Threads,” is a wonderful opportunity for him to showcase his sensitive facility on the instrument and he simply caresses you with his warm, expressively throaty tone. There is a raw gentleness to his playing that is quite impressive. Ayres and Waring  both play with a deliberate delicateness and refined nuance that is delightful.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Jazz Saxophone at it's best, Walter Smith III "TWIO"

Walter Smith III TWIO Whirlwind Records 


Houston born Walter Smith III is now a West Coast based, no nonsense tenor saxophonist who is amongst the leading voices on his instrument. I have been following his work since I first heard him on his Live in Paris from 2009 and later on Ambrose Akinmusire’s When the Heart Emerges Glistening from 2011. At the time he was a strong ensemble player who worked particularly well with trumpet players like Terrence Blanchard, Christian Scott, Sean Jones and Ambrose Akinmusire on a front line.

On his latest effort Twio (think of Elmer Fudd saying trio), soon to be released on February 9, 2018, his playing as a leader has matured and become more confident. He is joined on six of the nine songs on the album, by the plucky bass of Harish Raghavan and the percolating drums of Eric Harland. For the other four songs Harland remains on traps while the bass chair is taken over by the ubiquitous jazz ambassador and uber-bassist Christian McBride. On two of the songs Smith is joined by the second tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman. As the saxophonist has said in his promo materials, the songs were chosen to be more accessible and are about community and having fun. It seems with Twio he has accomplished what he set out to do.

The set starts off with a loping version of Monk’s “Ask Me Now.”  Smith’s bold tenor sound starts off with Raghavan’s brash bass out front and deliberate in its steadfast march as Harland playfully, dances around the rhythm. It’s Smith’s smooth, lustrous tone that is front and center here, as he works the melody with a marvelous sense of confident mastery. His explorations, especially when he solos alone, naked with his horn with no background rhythm section for support, are marvelously free and inventive.

On the Jerome Kern standard “Nobody Else But Me” we hear some intuitive interplay between Raghavan and Smith as the freewheeling Harland mixes it up. Smith’s sax has a loose limber feel to it both within the melody line and when he delves into some quicker paced harmonic explorations, yet he always seems to maintain the core melodic line of the song when he is playing. He has a knack of keeping the listener always engaged even when he improvises.

The cowboy inspired “On the Trail” finds bassist McBride, his big round bass and his signature stutter step, double-time lines leading the drive.  Harland is more in the pocket on this song and we are treated to the dual tenor saxophone line of Smith and Joshua Redman. The song brings back memories of Sonny Rollins venture into cowboy songs with his Way Out West album. While neither saxophonist has quite the same big, biting sound of Rollins, they each have their own identifiable sound and play off the other with great dexterity and purpose. After alternating the melody between them, the two saxophonists offer their own take on the melody before trading licks in a friendly exchange of ideas;  a fine addition to the tradition of tenor saxophone sparring matches by the two young titans.

The C. Fischer ballad “We’ll Be Together Again” is played as a saxophone and drum duo. We hear an unusual metronomic drum entrance by Harland that has the cadence of a slow strip. Smith’s round Dexter Gordon-like tenor rings through the melody with a mellifluous warmth that is quite sensuous as Harland adds percussive accents around the slow tempo beat.

McBride and Harland return for the Sammy Fain classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  Smith’s languorous saxophone states the melody solo before McBride’s buoyant bass and Harland’s traps enter. At about the two minutes mark the group picks up the pace and turns it into a medium tempo swinger with McBride’s bass leading the charge. A fleet fingered bass solo gets you snapping your fingers before Smith returns and restates the melody with a nuanced sensitivity that is compelling.

On Wayne Shorter’s “Adam’s Apple” bassist Raghavan returns providing a throbbing backdrop. The trio takes on a more modern feel, with Smith winding his sinewy way through the composition and finding some common ground with Harland who is given an extended solo that crackles with energy.

Perhaps the most moving performance on this album is Smith’s poignant portrayal on Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks.”  Smith correctly chooses a slow, languorous approach to this brooding song. His saxophone is beautifully nuanced and emotive as Raghavan’s bass down holds the bottom and Harland’s active traps swirl and shimmer beneath. The song has been in the repertoire of many a jazz great because of its haunting melody and it’s potential as a vehicle for expression. Here the thirty-seven-year old Smith makes it his own with a quiet confidence that is mature beyond his age.

Another perennial favorite is Gigi Gryce’s “Social Call” which starts off with Smith simply stating the melody line and playing a jaunty duet with a walking bass of McBride. Smith’s unadorned saxophone is a joy of fluidity and clarity and with McBride’s musical bass the two make wonderful music on this amusing Gryce classic.


The finale reunites the two saxophone voices of Redman and Smith in a unison chorus of Smith’s original composition “Contrafact,” a song based on "Like Someone in Love" in five meter. The two weave each other’s voices into an aural tapestry that is both willowy and colorful. McBride and Harland create a rumbling underbody over which the two saxophonists take turns finding common harmonic ground. It offers the listener a chance to compare the two saxophonists’ approach to improvising, which except for tone and attack have more similarities than differences. McBride offers a dazzling display of dexterity on his short but potent solo before the two saxophonists return to unison playing that is quite impressive in its precision.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Drumming phenom Dafnis Prieto scores big band gold with his "Back to Sunset"

Dafnis Prieto Big Band Back to the Sunset


There is something very stirring about a big band playing Afro-Cuban jazz. The music has a rhythmic core that is the armature upon which the horn and reed arrangements just swirl. Cuban born drummer Dafnis Prieto has been on his own personal musical adventure, utilizing his formidable rhythmic skills to create a unique vision for his Afro-Cuban inspired jazz. Since arriving from Cuba back in 1999, Prieto has brought an energy and flare to the music that is all his own. In 2011 his gift for being able to incorporate multi-rhythmic variations into his music was recognized by his receipt of the prestigious MacArthur ‘genius” grant. The drummer has taken his music a step further, writing and arranging a suite of big band charts that both pays homage to those who have inspired him while also blazing a trail forward into explosive new ground. The sound he creates is both imaginative and a primer of what we can expect further from this percussive hurricane.

Back to the Sunset is the culmination of his most recent energies. It features a suite of nine compositions played by the Dafnis Prieto Big Band and featuring some special guest soloists. Anchored and directed by a distinctly Latin rhythm section, the band includes Prieto on drums, fellow Cuban pianist extraordinaire Manuel Valera, the Puerto Rican bassist Rickey Rodríguez and the Venezuelan percussionist Robert Quintero on congas and percussion. There is an all American trombone section of Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Jeff Nelson; a trumpet section of Americans Michael Rodríguez, Nathan Eklund and Josh Deutsch and Russian born Alex Sipiagin and a reed section containing fellow Cuban Román Filíu, and Americans Michael Thomas, Peter Apfelbaum, Joel Frahm and Chris Cheek. This is one talented group and under Prieto's direction and drive they make magic.

The album’s lead off is “Una Vez Más,” a song dedicated to Latin giants of jazz Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente along with the Latin influenced trumpeter Brian Lynch. Lynch is featured on some shimmering, high register trumpet work here. The brass and reeds all work in sync with the infectious clave rhythm to transport you to the sunny realm of the southern hemisphere. Valera’s takes a solo that dances over Quintero and Prieto’s percussive explosion.

“The Sooner the Better” is a song dedicated to the Fort Apache bandleader Jerry González and Brazilian composer Edgberto Gismondi, and is a dense composition. The song begins with a pedal point by Valera and some fleet fingered bass work by Rodriguez. The fluttering woodwinds come dancing in as the brass bellow beneath. The repeating melody line is joined in rotation by each section until they merge in resplendent unison. Prieto has an ear for drama, building tension with soaring solos and releasing it masterfully, engaging the listener all the while keeping a tempestuous storm of rhythm roiling beneath. There are layers of color and texture here that paint a complex and masterful aural picture. Fluttering flute lines, boisterous baritone bleats lead up to a stirring and powerful tenor solo by Peter Apfelbaum. Alex Sipiagin introduces a fluid flugelhorn solo that hangs in the air like a bilious cloud. Altoist Filiu blasts out one last solo that filigrees around the repeating melody line to the coda. 

“Out of the Bone,” a song dedicated to pianist Michel Camilo and altoist and M base founder Steve Coleman, starts with a brooding baritone solo from Chris Cheek before the group goes into the Latin vibe. Prieto’s masterful drum rolls and syncopated lines along with Quintero’s active congas boil below the surface giving the band a base upon which to form layers of sound. A bass trombone solo by Jeff Nelson roars as the trumpet section squeals in the background.   A trombone duel between Garchik and Ferber is another highlight. There is a celebratory, festive Mexican hat dance feel to this one at the end that keeps you on your toes.

The iconoclastic alto saxophonist/composer Henry Threadgill is another of Prieto’s influences and here the drummer dedicates this lushly arranged composition “Back to the Sunset” to both Threadgill and to the pianist Andrew Hill. Hearing Threadgill’s probing, raspy alto in counterpoint to Prieto’s lyrical arrangement is quite a juxtaposition. The altoist’s jagged bursts of sound at first pierce Prieto’s lush arrangement like an intruding knife cutting through a delicate silk tapestry. But Threadgill’s alto finds a seam in the music, a line of raw beauty to explore, a vein that he discovers running through. To his credit he  mines it playing  poignantly and with great feeling.  The result is remarkable.

Perhaps one the most interesting arrangements on the album is entitled “Danzonish Potporrui,“dedicated to the pianist Bebo Valdes, the iconic jazz drummer Art Blakey and the Latin inspired Canadian soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett. Prieto starts off with a flurry of percussive inventiveness before the band settles into a Latin driven vamp. Prieto is a master of changing rhythmic time between sections. He skillfully plays the brass off against the woodwinds in a display of arranging prowess. He introduces a beautifully Iberian sounding trumpet solo by Josh Deutsch and after a throbbing bass solo by Rodriguez, the band increases the tempo again; this time featuring a lilting soprano voice (presumably a nod to Bunnett) by Michael Thomas. An uplifting Valera piano interlude (presumably in deference to Valdes) is surrounded by fluttering flutes and brass. Prieto keeps an array of impeccable time changes that would put a smile on Blakey's face. The finale has the band building an ever increasing tension as  a bandoneon sounding, melodica solo by Peter Apfelbaum, lends a Tango-like feel to the mood of the closing section of this complex piece.

“Song for Chico” is a dedication to bandleaders Chico O’Farrill, his son Arturo O’Farrill and Mario Bauzá and has a big band sound that resonates with its Afro-Cuban drive. The powerful band plays the lines with unusual force and drive. The saxophonist Steve Coleman’s alto is the featured soloist on this one and his penetrating tone lends a distinctively modern, non-Latin element to the piece. The band alternates lines with Coleman in a dramatic call and response. He is followed by an edgy trumpet solo by Nathan Eklund that pierces the envelope. Prieto and Quintero trade percussive barbs in a wild syncopated interlude as the band raise their voices individually in sequence to lead into another Coleman alto saxophone solo at the coda.

Dafnis Prieto Big Band photo credit David Garten
“Prelude Para Rosa” features Valera at his most creative and independent. The band pulses behind building up to an apex of interest with dancing piccolo, blaring trombones and burnished brass before they settle into a breezy sway and offer the piquant melody. A piccolo solo by Michael Thomas floats above the music like a hummingbird in flight. A lilting soprano solo by Joel Frahm has a similarly weightless feel. Listen to the pulsing drive that Prieto writes for the different sections; all separate tasks but interwoven in a unified tapestry of sound.

“Two for One” is dedicated to the drum master Buddy Rich, the pianist Chucho Valdes and the percussionist Hermeto Pascal. The song features Quintero’s driving congas, Chris Cheek’s boisterous baritone and Nathan Eklund’s trumpet. The band pulses like a throbbing heart with Prieto pumping just the right amount of percussive adrenaline to keep it up to the task. A sinewy alto saxophone solo by Thomas is followed by an inventive piano solo by Valera.  Toward the end Prieto demonstrates some of his polyrhythmic skills in the manner of a Buddy Rich-like solo that would have made the master proud..


“The Triumphant Journey” is dedicated two contemporaries that brought Afro-Cuban Music into this country, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the percussionist/singer/composer Chano Poza. A soaring trumpet solo by Mike Rodriguez and a tenor solo by Frahm with references to Gillespie’s ” A Night In Tunisa” are followed by a trombone solo by Tim Albright. Forceful arrangement of the
band over Filiu’s alto solo and roiling drums by the master Prieto concludes this adventurous album.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Faces Starts the Year off with "Straight Forward"

New Faces; Straight Ahead  PT8176
The independent label Posi Tone Records has the mantra “…to provide the highest quality recordings of the most relevant musicians on today’s jazz scene.” Co-owners producer Marc Free and engineer Nick O’Toole have been doing just that since 1994.  It seems 2018 will be no different. Free assembled his New Faces group from musician members of the Posi Tone stable of artists and produced a very satisfying new album aptly titled Straight Forward which will be released on January 12, 2018.

It’s a group of like-minded, young musicians who, based on this successful outing, have a long future together if they want it.  The group includes Josh Lawrence’s trumpet, Roxy Coss’ saxophone, the gossamer touch of vibraphonist Behn Gillece and the young pianist Theo Hill with the rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.

The group offers a tight, well executed set of music; compositions  that were culled partially from the Posi-Tone archives, but also includes two original compositions by trumpeter Lawrence and three by vibraphonist Gillece. There is one Herbie Hancock composition, “King Cobra,” that is particularly representative of the 50’s and 60’s Blue Note era, a recording model that Posi-Tone has clearly fashioned their own musical aspirations after.

The set starts out with a Jon Davis swinger titled “Happy Juice.”  Right away you perceive a chorus of instruments-trumpet, piano, saxophone and vibes-that have acquired the ability to meld their individual voices into a complimentary, unified sound that delights the ears. Trumpeter Lawrence has a clear easy flow to his playing. Coss’s saxophone tone is mellow and lustrous.Pianist Hill is rock steady throughout, but it is Gillece’s tubular vibe sound that subtly dominates here, driving the tune forward as the rhythm section of Brendler and Sperrazza provide the rhythmic base.

What I like about this group is that they relish ensemble playing over lengthy individual solos. The haunting “Delilah Was A libra” is opened with a penetrating lead in by Gillece. Hill and Coss offer two short but poignant solos before Lawrence enters with a brief but potent trumpet statement. It’s the group speak that you come away admiring here.

On Brian Charette’s jaunty “West Village” the front line states the melody in unison, before Josh Lawrence’s muted trumpet solo raises the heat. A brief but imaginative solo by Coss leads to Gillece’s darting vibes play. The notes seem to take flight off his mallets like wood nymphs alit in a forest. This song was originally played by an organ trio, but here the group utilizes the additional instrumentation to great effect as Brendler and Sperrazza drive the beat.

The Herbie Hancock classic, “King Cobra,” is played by a tight front line stating the serpentine melody in unison, with a sound reminiscent of the old Blue Note magic. Pianist Hill’s repeated chord lines sets the time throughout.  Saxophonist Coss’s tone is buttery soft, uncluttered and warm and Hill plays nicely off her changes of direction.  Lawrence’s trumpet solo is well paced and understated. The music captures much of the electricity of the original recording.

The album continues with bright “I’m Here” which offers solos by Lawrence, Hill, Coss and Gillece respectively. The first of Gilcee’s three compositions on the album is up next with “Down the Pike,” a medium tempo swinger that offers some clever changes. Josh Lawrence’s’ driving blues, “Hush Puppy” keeps the proceedings moving with some Tyner-esque-like playing by Hill and a pulsing beat by Brendler. Lawrence’s muted trumpet, Coss’s mellow horn and Gillece’s vibes all add to the mix as Sperazza dazzles on traps.

Perhaps my favorite cut on the album is “Vortex,” a circular composition that features some of Coss’s most evocatively sensitive playing and spurs the vibraphonist/composer Gillece into some of his most exploratory adventures on the album. This one is bound to become a classic.

The music continues with trumpeter Lawrence offering a Latin inspired composition titled “Fredreico.” Sperrazza and Brendler hold down the Latin groove admirably.

“Follow Suit” is another Gillece composition that was clearly influenced by those sterling Blue Note years. The vibraphonist double-times his playing here as Brendler and Sperrazza maintain the torrid pace.  Lawrence and Coss both offer fiery solos and Hill’s piano solo is frenetic.


 The set closes with the easy, feel-good gospel-influenced Jared Gold composition “Preaching.”  

Not sure if New Faces was intended as a one off to start the year, but with such an auspicious first album, perhaps New Faces is destined to become a regular Posi Tone featured group.

You can sample some of this album by clicking here

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Joe Gransden and his Big Band Make the Holidays Swing with The Christmas Song

Joe Gransden and his Big Band The Christmas Song

With the first flurries of snow, the smell of wood burning in an open hearth and a brisk winter chill settling into the morning air, everyone is getting ready to enjoy a festive holiday season this year. Whether you’ll be trimming a Christmas tree, stringing decorative lights on your house or lighting a menorah these wonderful rituals are always better completed with some holiday music playing in the background. I myself can’t wait till Thanksgiving has past to bring out my stack of Christmas jazz.  My collection is an eclectic mix of old and new. Some of my favorites include Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Ted Rosenthal’s Wonderland, Marcus Roberts’ Prayer for Peace and a couple of collections Jazz to the World and A Jazzy Wonderland to name just a few.

This year I got a chance to preview the new Joe Gransden Big Band Holiday recording The Christmas Song and suffice it to say I have a new album to add to my holiday collection. The Atlanta based bandleader/trumpeter/vocalist has put together a fabulous album with his knock out big band and a gorgeous string section that is a must have for anyone who loves their holiday music served up hot, jazzy and with some swing.

Balladeer Gransden has been leading his big band since as far back as 2006. Keeping such a large group together for such an extended period is a testament to Joe’s hard work and determination to preserve the big band sound. His rotating group of first-call, local musicians are all standouts, many of them performing nationally, some well-respected educators teaching a new crop of jazz students at prestigious universities, all dedicated to the greater sound of this big band.

Gransden has a medium timbre, silk glove of a voice that has been burnished by long exposure and careful study of such vocal greats as Sinatra and Bennett mixed with the more contemporary sounds of Bobby Darin and Harry Connick Jr.  He is an affable character who engages with his audience with a self-deprecating humor and a million-dollar smile. 

On this album Gransden selects fourteen holiday songs, many old-time favorites mixed in with a sprinkling of the blues. All are rendered bristling and new by fresh arrangements that utilize the band’s big sound with a few augmented by a lush string section.

The opener “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” finds Joe’s mellifluous tenor fronting a rousing arrangement by Jeff Jarvis which just propels you off your seat. The strong walking bass by Starkey and brief but bright piano solo by Banks is complimented by a gorgeous string accompaniment.

The children’s classic “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” features a wonderfully swinging brass arrangement by Wes Funderburk with Joe crooning away with true Sinatra swagger. The band cooks, as the big round sound of bassist Starkey takes a solo before John Sandfort wails on his tenor.

Christmas can also bring the blues to some and Joe’s Sinatra-esque “That’s Life” sounding version of the Charles Brown and Gene Redd “Please Come Home for Xmas” is made all the more poignant with some stirring saxophone work by altoist Mace Hibbard behind the Jeff Jarvis arrangement.

The band is given free rein to rock on the festive “Winter Wonderland” on an Eric Alexander arrangement.

Perhaps my favorite on the album is the very hip Jim Basile arrangement of the Nat King Cole favorite “Nature Boy.” The band just slays on this one and Gransden offers some of his finest trumpet solo work on this classic. Starkey and Varnes keep the pace swinging and Banks accompaniment is subtle and superb. Gransden’s voice is at his most sincere and he hits some difficult notes with a polished panache.

No holiday album would be complete without a version of “A Christmas Song” dutifully playing with a yule log burning in the fireplace in the background. No one can approach the iconic sound of Nat Cole on this classic, but Gransden does a credible job of singing it with humble believability. The big band is missing here, but for the bass, the piano, Sam Skelton on flute and Jeff Jarvis' flugelhorn backed by a sea of strings.

Another favorite is the slick arrangement by Wes Funderburk on the hip “Cool Yule.” I’ve never heard this song before, but it will easily be added to my Christmas song rotation at home. Here Gransden sings this swinger with a cool aplomb, encouraging the trombone section before rendering his own soaring trumpet solo. Vocalist John Hopkins lends his raspy voice near the end in a short duet with Gransden for the finale.

The band is given another chance to use its multiple voices on a frantic version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with another spectacular arrangement by lead trombonist Wes Funderburk. Tenor man John Sandfort gets the call on this one and tears it up on his horn as the band pulses behind him. Gransden gets another feature on trumpet which he uses to play a dancing solo that he brings to a soaring climax.  The band simmers to a boil.

The album continues with “It’s A Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which is played in two different tempos.

The perennial “White Christmas” has a Woody Herman, Four Brothers inspired, saxophone section feature, arranged by Vince Norman, that just swings in wonderful synchronicity. Gransden offers a warm flugelhorn solo in contrast. 

The heartwarming “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is deftly arranged as a quartet piece by pianist Banks and opens with a muted trumpet played by Gransden that he overdubs against his own mellow vocal. 

 “Angels We Have Heard on High” is played with a big boisterous sound by the big band. This Eric Alexander arrangement calls for two trumpets at different registers often playing simultaneously, with Gransden taking the lower register solo and lead trumpeter Kevin Lyons taking the higher part, at times sounding very baroque in his attack.  

The last two songs are both based on a Wes Funderburk arrangement of “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Drummer Varnes leads off with a cadenced snare solo that leads into a fun call and response saxophone duel between altoists Mace Hibbard and Sam Skelton. The band is pumping on this and Gransden’s vocal delivery is smooth and cheerful. They end the album with a brief reprise of the chorus.


If you’re like me and enjoy a month or so of holiday sounds bellowing throughout your home, then Joe Gransden and his Big Band’s The Christmas Song is a must have.


Personnel : Mace Hibbard, lead alto; Sam Skelton, alto saxophone; John Sandfort, tenor saxophone: Mike Walton, tenor saxophone; Don Erdman, baritone, saxophone;  Wes Funderburk, lead trombone, Tom Gibson, trombone, Kevin Hyde, trombone; Lee Watts, bass trombone; Chip Crotts, lead trumpet; Clark Hunt, lead trumpet; Kevin Lyons, trumpet; Hardin Butcher, trumpet; Melvin Jones, trumpet; Kenny Banks Sr. piano; Neal Starkey, bass; Justin Varns, drums.

Strings: Violins, Mary Burndrett, David Edwards, Ginny Respress Fairchild, Kathryn Koch, Angele Lawless, Patrick Ryan, Jessica Stinson and Andy Zabrinski. Cellos: Barney Culver, Roy Harran, Strings Contractor: Jonathan Wright. Strings Conducted by Jeff Jarvis.

Recorded at Brighter Shade Studios, Atlanta, GA by John Driskell Hopkins and Thom “TK” Kidd
September 5th , 6th  & 7th  2017.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Notes on Jazz Best of Jazz 2017


Billy Childs : Rebirth Mack Avenue Records

The year is almost over and once again it’s time to highlight some of the best jazz that I have heard in 2017. There are undoubtedly many fine albums that I have not had the opportunity to have listened to,  so I am sure some deserving offerings will unfortunately go unrecognized by me and not make it to my  best of 2017 compilation. That being  said, I found a plethora of amazing, creative, diverse and inspiring recordings that I did get the privilege of listening to and my list includes some of what I consider the very best.

There were some notable debut releases by rising stars in this genre. Probably the most impressive vocal debut was that of Jazzmeia Horn on her A Social Call.  The woman just killed it with her superb instrument, amazing control , a rare sense of poise and vocal elasticity that was just a pleasure to be heard. Young Atlanta area drummer Dave Potter  made a surprising debut with his polished and propelled straight-ahead session, You Already Know.  The Hazelrigg Brothers fired a fine opening salvo with their crossover album Songs We Like.  Latin musicians made some terrific music this year with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon's Tipico, Cuban pianist David Virelles' Gnosis and flutist Nestor Torres Jazz Flute Traditions all leaving us with some memorable music.

So, with no further ado here are my top picks for jazz for 2017 in no particular order. Where possible, there is a sample video or recording for you to listen to. Happy holidays and pleas continue to support live music and live jazz in particular.

Notes on Jazz Best of Jazz 2017:

If my feet were put to the fire to name the album that most impressed me this year it would have to be pianist/arranger/composer Billy Childs superb Rebirth. The album was a fountainhead of creativity played at the highest level.


Billy Childs: Rebirth : Mack Avenue Records




Drummer Nate Smith, whose been a first call musician backing many an artist, showed exactly how talented he is on his wonderful : Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere: RopeaDope records

Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon  had a superlative effort with his : Tipico: Miel Music



Jazzmeia Horn: A Social Call: Prestige. An awesome debut. The lady can sing, period. 



One of my favorite contemporary bass player/composers, the ever inventive Ben Allison and Think Free: Layers of the City: Sonic Camera Records


Overcoming health issues, saxophonist Dayna Stephens: finds inspiration in Gratitude: Contagious Music




The irrepressible drummer Matt Wilson, finds a familial tie to the poet Carl Sandburg and his work on : Honey & Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg: Palmetto Records



Steve Nelson: Brothers Under the Sun” High Note Records The master vibraphonist pays homage to a mentor and friend, the late Mulgrew Miller. 


Sherman Irby and Momentum: Cerulean Canvas: Black Warrior Records

The mainstay alto saxophonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra comes into his own with this driving straight ahead jewel.






Alan Broadbent and The London Metropolitan Orchestra: Developing Story: Eden River Records/Rough Trade. The master pianist/arranger/composer finally realizes his grand idea that first started back in the nineteen seventies.







Brian McCarthy Nonet: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Truth Revolution Records
A fascinating big band work by a talented young arranger/composer from Vermont, inspired by a speech from Abraham Lincoln.



Ralph Towner: My Foolish Heart: ECM The virtuoso guitarist plays some beautiful music as only he can.

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Brian Charette: Kǘrrent: Dim Mark. The future of organ trio music is here.


Pete Malinverni: Heaven: Sarana  The spiritual side of this pianist is given wings with a terrific supporting cast.




  
The Hazelrigg Brothers: Songs We Like: Self Released These two brothers and an intuitive drummer tackle a more modern repertoire with their own fresh approach.



Mark Winkler: The Company I Keep: Café Pacific Records. West coast vocalist Mark Winkler is simply one of the most hip and interesting singers on the scene today.





Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band: Faces Under the Influence: Music Inspired by the Films of John Cassavettes: Waiting Moon Records. The fiery trumpeter Tim Hagans writes an evocative score for big band, inspired by the films of director John Cassavettes.





Marilyn Scott: Standard Blue: Prana Entertainment. This enchanting chanteuse can make an old standard  sound like you've never heard it before.





Cuong Vu 4Tet w/ Bill Frisell: Ballet the Music of Michael Gibbs: Rare Noise Records. The Vietnamese trumpeter and the eclectic guitarist celebrate the music of Michael Gibbs.





Dave Potter: You Already Know: Summit Records. This young drummer proves he has the mettle to make it to the top of his game.





 Saffron Ensemble: Will You? : Rock, Paper, Scissors. A true world music album that celebrates the Persian poetry of Rumi featuring the marvelous voice of Katayoun Goudara.




David Virelles: Gnosis: ECM    The Cuban Pianist explores the spirit world of his ancestors and incorporates a variety of percussive elements.





Dave Stryker: Strykin’ Ahead: Strikezone Records. The journeyman guitarist revitalizes the organ trio format with a stellar group of like minded individuals.





Nestor Torres: Jazz Flute Traditions: Alfi Records. A master flutist honors the past greats of the flute with a splendid album that demonstrates his mastery of the tradition.


My pick for best historical re-issue: Two master saxophonists give an inspired performance in honoring one of their chief influences. 
Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano: Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane: Resonance Records