Hot Wax: Album Reviews – February 2015

February 5, 2015

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George Gee Swing Orchestra 

Swing Makes You Happy! (Rondette)

  • George Gee – leader
  • David Gibson – musical director, arrangements & trombone
  • Hilary Gardner, John Dokes – vocals
  • Ed Pazant, Michael Hashim, Anthony Lustig – saxophones
  • Andy Gravish, Freddie Hendrix – trumpets
  • Steve Einerson – piano
  • Marcus McLaurine – upright bass
  • Willard Dyson – drums 

Younger readers (or those whose sense of history doesn’t go back further than 20 years) might not know that big bands were a major force in American popular music from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s in an epoch generally known as the Swing Era. Big bands weren’t always necessarily jazz bands–some bands had more sentimental, “sweeter” pop sensibilities such as the still-extant Glenn Miller Orchestra while others were predominately jazz organizations that played catchy and danceable music, such as the Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford Orchestras. Bandleader George Gee tends toward the latter, interlacing his approach with affectionate nostalgia for the glory days of swing (minus any trendy or retro “hepcat” affections) with a healthy sense of modernism.

One aspect that sets Gee’s outfit apart from the retro set is the presence of originals by trombonist and musical director David Gibson. As to Gibson’s atypical arranging style, one need only listen to the band’s take on the Nat “King” Cole hit “Nature Boy.” Cole’s take was a whimsical, limpid ballad, but in the hands of Gee and company it becomes a modal-flavored dark fable with sharply swinging and brassy, slightly ominous horn arrangements and John Dokes’ wryly suave baritone (which slightly evokes Billy Eckstine) essaying the lyrics. “Evenin’” also features Dokes’ bluesy swagger and has a twisty, slightly dissonant alto solo (distant echoes of Eric Dolphy) as the tart cherry on a hearty swingin’ sundae.

Much of Swing Makes You Happy recalls less of the primo years of the Swing era than the “Renaissance” years of the Basie Orchestra of the 1950s, when its popularity was boosted several notches by the fresh and dynamic arrangements of Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, and Quincy Jones. But fear not, fans of old-school big band styles–Gee still serves up plenty of danceable fare, such as “Lindyhopper’s Delight” and the Edgar Sampson chestnut “Blue Minor.” Gee and his posse walk a fine line between reminiscence of the Swing Era (forgoing pious over-reverence) and post bop modernism with grace, panache, and plenty of joie de vivre. (Mark Keresman)

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Delfeayo Marsalis 

The Last Southern Gentlemen  (Troubadour Jass Records)

  • Delfeayo Marsalis – trombone
  • Ellis Marsalis – piano
  • John Clayton – bass
  • Marvin “Smitty” Smith – drums

A discography can often give an incredibly incomplete picture of a musician.  Case in point is the story of Delfeayo Marsalis. The trombone-wielding member of present-day jazz’s most well known family has few items in his own leader discography, but he’s been plenty busy. For a good part of his career, Marsalis was chiefly gaining playing experience as a sideman, absorbing wisdom first-hand from jazz greats like pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, trombonist Slide Hampton, and a holy trinity of dearly departed drum icons–Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones. And throughout his entire career, Marsalis has been an in-demand producer, helming recordings for everybody from his famed siblings to trumpeter Terence Blanchard to pianist Eric Reed. In truth, he’s spent far more time in the studio than most top-flight musicians ever will; he’s just spent much of that time on the other side of the glass.  

Due in no small part to his production work, Marsalis has only taken to the studio in his own name a handful of times. First came Pontius Pilate’s Decision (Novus, 1992), a strong display of forward-looking hard bop draped in religion-speak; then there was Musashi (Evidence, 1997), an album that gave the trombonist another chance to work a J.J. Johnson-ish angle to good effect; and then there was nothing, at least for a while. It would be another nine years until Marsalis would step out on his own with Minions Dominions (Troubadour Jass, 2006). That album, which featured heavy hitters like Jones and pianist Mulgrew Miller, was another show of musical sure-footedness. More importantly, it got the ball rolling again. It wouldn’t be too long before Delfeayo would deliver Sweet Thunder (Troubadour Jass, 2010), a brilliant look at Duke Ellington’s flirtation with Shakespeare, and Live At Jazz Fest 2011 (Homegrown, 2011), a largely overlooked album documenting the trombonist’s work with the Uptown Jazz Orchestra. Now, only a few years removed from that live outing, he gives us The Last Southern Gentlemen, an inviting quartet date that brings bassist John Clayton, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and, most notably, the patriarch of the Marsalis family–Ellis Marsalis–into play. 

This album isn’t the first to bring Delfeayo and Ellis together, but it is their first album-length collaboration. And while thirty years may separate father and son, there’s no gulf between them in terms of music. Every number, be it a duo take on a standard like “I Cover The Waterfront” a NOLA-spiced stroll down “Sesame Street,” or a lively “Speak Low,” highlights their strong bond.  Ellis engages in conversation with his son, comps beneath him, and gets plenty of space to shine. Delfeayo, giving his father his due, even sits out on one occasion, putting the piano trio in the spotlight on “If I Were Bell.”  Elsewhere, Delfeayo’s personality is central to the music. His masterful mute work is on display in plenty of places, he shines in settings that highlight his lyrical playing (“I’m Confessin’” and “But Beautiful”), and he occasionally cuts loose, letting his chops off the leash. Through it all, Clayton and Smith are right there with him. Both men contribute to the breezy nature of the ballads and propel the upbeat numbers like nobody’s business. 

The music presented on The Last Southern Gentlemen really tells its own story, but those looking to explore the racially-connected truths behind these “Southern Gentlemen” would do well to read Delfeayo’s writings; the accompanying liner essay, like the music, shows Delfeayo Marsalis to be an extraordinarily astute communicator. (Dan Bilawsky)   

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Vance Thompson’s Five Plus Six 

Such Sweet Thunder (Shade Street Records)

  • Vance Thompson – trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Michael Wyatt – trumpet
  • Joe Jordan – trumpet
  • Tylar Bullion – trombone
  • Sean Copeland – trombone, bass trombone
  • Jamel Mitchell – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone
  • Keith Brown – piano, Fender Rhodes
  • Greg Tardy – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
  • Taylor Coker – bass
  • David King – baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone
  • Nolan Nevels – drums

     Vance Thompson, a fine writer and trumpeter who founded the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, initially thought about making this record with one of his other working units–The Marble City Five. In the end, that group became the core of this project, but a stable of six strong horn players also came aboard, helping to broaden the color spectrum in the arrangements, injecting enthusiasm into the music, and adding range and depth to the group.

As the album title suggests, the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is central to this project. They’re represented as a team via the co-written “Such Sweet Thunder,” presented here as an Ellingtonian construct that’s alternately grounded by Afro-Cuban underpinnings and swing, but both composers also receive their due as individuals elsewhere on the album. A rollicking “Rockin’ In Rhythm” in seven proves to be one of the standout tracks, a straight-eighth take on “Prelude To A Kiss,” covered with a Fender Rhodes glaze, presents the song in a different light than usual, and Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” gives pause to admire some strong soloing and creative arranging.
Three of the five remaining tracks on the album are inventive rewrites of Thelonious Monk tunes that eschew or obscure the quirky notions attached to the originals while still remaining wholly faithful to Monk’s vision. There’s a livelier-than-usual “Pannonica” and a well-developed “Ugly Beauty” to admire, but the best of the bunch is the tight and funky “Four In One.”
The only two numbers on the program that don’t have jazz origins still manage to fit in beautifully. Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” an odd metered number that’s bookended by ruminative explorations, and “He’s Gone Away,” a beautiful Appalachian folk number that ends the album on a peaceful yet powerful note, are every bit as interesting as the redesigned, oft-covered classics they sit next to. Such Sweet Thunder is a testament to the durability of these compositions, the skills of these musicians, and the creative spirit that lives within Vance Thompson. (Dan Bilawsky)    

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Lennie Tristano 

Chicago, April 1951 (Uptown Jazz)

  • Lennie Tristano – piano
  • Lee Konitz – alto sax
  • Warne Marsh – tenor sax
  • Willie Dennis – trombone
  • Burgher “Buddy” Jones – bass
  • Dominic “Mickey” Simonetta – drums

 

Red Garland Trio

Swingin’ On the Korner: Live At The Keystone Korner (Resonance)

  • Red Garland – piano
  • Leroy Vinnegar –bass
  • Philly Joe Jones – drums

Personality. It can’t be bought or taught and you can’t even objectively define it. Still, it’s an essential element of what characterizes a classic jazz musician. The pianists Lennie Tristano and Red Garland couldn’t be less similar as keyboard stylists, yet both are outstanding examples of jazz musicians who exude palpable personality with each note played. On two live recordings, both capturing previously unreleased performances from a specific club engagement, Tristano and Garland reveal what made each unique and irreplaceable in the jazz canon.

Boston, April 1951 presents Tristano with two of his most important acolytes, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, both heard in exemplary form. (Archetypal Tristano-ite, guitarist Billy Bauer, is noticeably absent.)Working with a deficient club piano that can make him sound as if he’s playing a clavichord, Tristano demonstrates a more assertive and aggressive side of his musical character than was previously heard on his more subdued proto-cool jazz recordings of the late 1940s. Yet his unmistakably individual instrumental voice – his, yes, personality – is evident everywhere. If the influence of Nat Cole’s laid back swing, Art Tatum’s whirlwind explorations, and Bud Powell’s fervent bop attack can be detected in Tristano’s playing, he has so thoroughly synthesized these models – and incorporated his own harmonic vocabulary, rhythmic eccentricities and finessed touch – that the end result is as individual and distinctive as a birthmark.

Red Garland shared many of Tristano’s influences, yet, such is the mystery of jazz creation, he sounded nothing like the cool-school guru. Maybe the difference between the two – not quite Apollonian versus Dionysian – is attributable to Garland’s unshakeable ebullience; rarely has a pianist sounded so downright pleased with the sheer joy of swinging. On Keystone, reunited in 1977 with his Miles Davis band associate, Philly Joe Jones – a drummer who matched Garland’s exuberance – and joined by the imperturbably steady West Coast bassist Leroy Vinnegar, Garland romps through blues, ballads, jazz standards, and American Songbook classics with a characteristically balanced air of relaxation and abandon. No new ground broken here, just three musical comrades enjoying each other’s company to the fullest. Personality, to be sure, wins out every time. (Steve Futterman)

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Christian Finger

Ananda (Streetzone)

  • Christian Finger, Jeff Ballard – drums (track 11)
  • Vadim Neselovskyi – piano
  • Dave Styker, Pete McCann – guitars
  • Adam Armstrong – bass
  • Zack Brock – violin
  • Bobby Harden – vocals (track 6)

Mivos String Quartet:

  • Olivia DePrato, Joshua Modney – violin
  • Victor Lowrey – viola
  • Mariel Roberts – cello

Christian Finger is a German drummer/composer residing in NYC and his resume includes working with Dave Kikoski, Gerd Dudek, Harvie S, and Charlie Hunter. Ananda is one of the most inclusive albums this writer has heard this year–it’s all over-the-map with its influences and inspirations yet it holds together as a cohesive experience for the eclectic-minded. Without coming across as a Whitman’s Sampler, Ananda encompassed fusion, chamber jazz, Django Reinhardt-style swing, mellow balladry, hard bop, and more.

“African Skies, Linear Lives” juxtaposes African-flavored (almost New Orleans-like, too) with gnarly, thorny rock-edged guitar from Pete McCann and Vadim Neseovsky plays a lovely ruminative solo with echoes of Abdullah Ibrahim and Keith Jarrett. “Truth Waltzed In” is a bittersweet ballad wherein McCann gets in touch with his inner Kenny Burrell and Zach Brock waxes romantic with the warm elegance (though not the style) of Stephane Grappelli, and Vadim Neseovsky plays a spare, luminously lyrical yet punchy solo. The exhilarating “Nights Beyond, India” has a “Caravan”-like rhythm, some fierce, searing rock-like guitar from McCann that evolves into a duel with Brock as it builds to Coltrane-like intensity, with little detour to some pugnacious heavy metal motifs and then into some contemplative McCoy Tyner-esque passages. “Two Faces” is a melancholy yet melodramatic (in the best sense!) ballad sung by Bobby Harden in a manner evoking Kurt Elling in his more mellow moments.

The Mivos String Quartet isn’t there for a “with strings” concept –the foursome is melded into Finger’s ensemble as a whole. While the focus is on Finger’s remarkable compositions, his drumming his most impressive–like Jack DeJohnette and Matt Wilson, he’s alternately explosive, self-effacing, and making with simmering swing. If you’re the type of jazz fan–or music fan for that matter–that needs “consistency” for the length of an album, Ananda might be frustrating. Conversely, if you can groove to the Kronos Quartet, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, and McCoy Tyner within the same hour, this platter is well nigh essential. (Mark Keresman)

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