Hot Wax – Album Reviews: March 2016

April 8, 2016

daveDave Douglas Quintet
Brazen Heart (Greenleaf)

Dave Douglas – trumpet
Jon Irabagon – tenor saxophone
Matt Mitchell – piano
Linda Oh – acoustic bass
Rudy Royston – drums

The protean trumpeter Dave Douglas strikes again – yet another album of creative, immediate, and rousing post bop with a crack band of exemplary young–ish players. Douglas’ background includes stints with Horace Silver and John Zorn, and his discography includes tribute albums to Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. As you, Dear Reader, may’ve guessed, Douglas’ approach is wonderfully inclusive, but he’s not all over-the-map – there is tremendous focus, especially since Douglas recorded with his working band. They sound and feel like a band, as opposed to a collection of players.

The proceedings begin with “Broken Heart,” a Thelonious Monk-tinged, blues-charged bit of bop. Unlike many post-Miles-ian trumpeters, Douglas displays little influence from the Prince of Darkness. His wide, deep tone carries reverberations from Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham, with some of the crackle of Booker Little. Jon Irabagon carefully careens with a steely, Sonny Rollins-flavored solo, followed by the oh-so-lyrical piano of Matt Mitchell, who tickles those high notes in a charmingly McCoy Tyner-like manner. While in no way imitative of the Blue Note era, this track evokes the essence of BN’s legendary sessions helmed by Monk and Art Blakey (the Shorter edition, to be sure.) Continuing in the blue-mood mode, “Deep River” has a gospel-tinged melody (appropriate, since it’s a traditional gospel song) and Irabagon sings his solo (through his tenor) in a manner not unlike the soulful crooning of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Mitchell’s notes land in your eardrum like a just-beginning rain while Linda Oh and Rudy Royston provide rhythm and subtle swing so discreetly one might not notice them. Douglas’ sound accents ensemble playing, not lengthy solo spots. Everyone gets to shine, certainly, but Douglas’ compositions are never frameworks for soloing.

“Inure Phase” is more tasty hard bop, but with a difference – Mitchell’s solo builds to a mode of restlessness, and Royston seems to engage him in a friendly duel, then the horns return with a subtle Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry cast. This might be good for the kind of movie when our reluctant hero realizes the world is out to get him – this is the most good-natured music conveying intense disquiet this writer has heard this year. “Ocean Spray” is more bop that will not stop – Mitchell surges, Royston’s crackling drums are out–front in the mix, and Irabagon hard outside, creamy soft inside solo in reminiscent of the great Hank Mobley. The second traditional piece, “There Is a Balm in Gilead” nobly carrying with it a great sadness, the horns of Douglas and Irabagon (the same lad from Mostly Other People Do The Killing) taking on vocal hues; Linda Oh gets a supple, Charlie Haden–like solo (she doesn’t “sound” like Haden, but both have a songlike approach to soloing – and Haden sang gospel music as a youth), Mitchell is gently sanctified as Horace Silver and the underrated Gene Harris. The closer is a blazing fare-thee-well entitled “Wake Up Clare” – Douglas burns here (somewhere Lee Morgan is smiling), Mitchell communes with his inner McCoy Tyner, Oh has an pointed, nimble solo (I almost hear whispers of Eberhard Weber), and Royston has a solo with furious drive and the flair of a horn player (Max Roach may be smiling too).

Douglas has explored traditional American folk and gospel themes before, but there seems to be added emphasis on gospel-derived soulfulness on Brazen Heart… which is not a bad thing, not at all. Douglas does it again! (Mark Keresman)

pianoKenny Barron

At The Piano (Elemental Music)

Kenny Barron – piano

The critical success of 2014’s The Art Of Conversation – a telepathic duet recording between the bassist Dave Holland and the pianist Kenny Barron – was yet another reminder of how lucky we are to have deeply experienced and artistically mature musicians within our midst. Indeed, Barron has been a formidable presence since the early ‘60s; evolving from a teenage marvel to a now revered master of modern jazz piano. Yet if Barron is presently considered a titan of post–bop, his exalted position was only truly acknowledged sometime in the mid ‘90s. For too many years he was recognized as a highly valued journeyman, a “musician’s musician” counted on to bring technical aplomb and taste to the bandstand and the recording studio but hardly registering on the A-list radar screen.

One man who did have the attuned ears to fully appreciate Barron’s early worth was the legendary producer Don Schlitten. By the dawn of the Eighties, Barron had already gained valuable experience with an imposing swath of bebop icons including Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody and such post bop giants as Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard, and Ron Carter – his attention grabbing stints with the band Sphere and the saxophone giant Stan Getz were still before him. In 1981, Schlitten brought Barron to a New York studio, set him in front of a first rate instrument, and let him loose. The bracing and beauteous At The Piano, originally issued on Schlitten’s Xanadu label and now re-released on Elemental, was Barron’s first solo album.

Bursting out of the gate with “Bud-Like,” which draws on motifs from Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco,” Barron displays his already spectacular command of bebop phraseology and keyboard dexterity. The original recording’s final cut, a brisk version of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” also exhibits Barron’s gifts as a bebop sprinter, while Barron’s own “Calypso” (reprised on The Art Of Conversation) gets a sprightly turn. “Body and Soul” brings out the Tatum in Barron, his darting phrasing leaching any sentimentality from the performance until the very end.

Three leisurely and lyrical tracks reveal the warm heart of the pianist’s artistry. “The Star Crossed Lovers,” receives the kind of loving treatment that this heart–tugging Billy Strayhorn masterpiece demands – come to this ballad with the willingness to expose your emotions openly, as Barron does, or don’t come to it at all. Monk’s “Misterioso,” its unadorned harmonies offering up the chance to dig in deep and roar or cut back to basics, finds Barron relaxed and playful.

Barron’s pleasant original “Enchanted Flower” never quite finds sure footing, but the bonus track, “Wazuri Blues” makes up for it. Short, sweet, and decidedly uncomplicated, this traditionally styled blues finds Barron drawing easefully on the fundamental roots that ground even the most sophisticated of masters.

The album’s new liner notes offer a telling quote from the late piano stylist Mulgrew Miller. “[Barron] wasn’t breaking down barriers like McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock, but he’s always trying to reach past his limitations, and he shares with those guys a command of the language of whatever area he’s dealing with.” In 1981, surrounded by a host of daring innovators like the aforementioned Tyner and Hancock, Barron may have had trouble grabbing sufficient attention with his expert, unpretentious playing. At The Piano is a welcome reminder that he was nonetheless ready for the big time, even then. (Steve Futterman)

personHouston Person
Something Personal (HighNote)

Houston Person – tenor sax
Steve Nelson – vibraphone
John di Martino – piano
James Chirillo – guitar
Ray Drummond – bass
Lewis Nash – drums.

Houston Person (b. 1934) is one of the few remaining originals of a saxophone lineage including Gene Ammons, Stanley Turrentine, Ike Quebec, David “Fathead” Newman, and Willis Jackson. Like them, Person is a master of that big–toned, slightly breathy, blues/R&B-charged tenor saxophone sound that came from a nexus of swing (big- and small-band varieties), bebop/hard bop, soul jazz, and rhythm & blues, an approach that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. For decades, Person has been steadfastly maintaining this tradition in assorted contexts. Something Personal is nothing substantially different in Person’s discography (70+ albums, folks), but that’s hardly the point – within these stylistic parameters, it scarcely gets much better than this.

The proceedings begin with an elegant take on “The Second Time Around,” Person playing with a tighter, almost pinched tone, sounding a bit like an alto saxophone at times. He guides, pushes, and elaborates upon the melody like the best singers might (no surprise, as he’s worked with several class-A vocalists in his career, including Etta Jones, Lou Rawls, and Lena Horne). Steve Nelson plays some soulful, blues-drenched vibes here (slightly evoking the great soul jazz vibist Johnny Lytle, with whom Person has played) and John di Martino, Ray Drummond, and Lewis Nash lay down a relaxed but gently swinging groove. Then, students, if you want to truly know that classic ballad style we well-over-voting age types go on about, listen to “Crazy He Calls Me.” Person’s sax is both robust and creamy-smooth, with just a touch of that Ben Webster breathiness in his tone. Like sax icon Lester Young, Person is an instrumentalist that knows the lyrics to the tune he’s playing, and it shows–he keeps the feeling of the song while putting his own spin on it.

“I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over” is straight-up bebop, the quintet going on all burners but with an enticing sense of restraint, wherein di Martino pulls off that less–is–more trick masterfully. The Barbra Streisand 1970s hit “The Way We Were” gets that Dutch chocolate cake-rich treatment you’d expect, Person caressing the tune with unpretentious grandeur and moderate passion (with a few excited yelps/shouts tossed in for good measure). The bonuses are James Churillo’s guitar, laced with classy old–school licks redolent of ‘70s Philly Soul and Brook Benton’s 1970 hit “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Di Martino’s keys are bluesy and ruminative, powerful yet gentle as a light summer rain; Nelson’s vibes shimmer as a rainbow after said rain. “Change Partners” is set to a bossa nova rhythm and Person puts on his Stan Getz hat, adopting some of Getz’s burnished cool-cat gist. Nelson really gets to shine here with vividly unperturbed yet asserting frolicking. The high point may well be the title tune, as Person and company lock into a compelling groove that’s almost late-period jump blues or early rock & roll – seriously, this could be a Ray Charles or Big Joe Turner obscurity, Person extra-bluesy and energetic (almost honking), riding the groove like it’s the last tune of the tour.

This is yet another winner from Mr. Person, a platter of flavorful, satisfying soul food. May he live long(er) and prosper (further). (Mark Keresman)

homesGilad Hekselman
Homes (JazzVillage)

Gilad Hekselman – guitars
Joe Martin – bass
Marcus Gilmore – drums       (tracks 1–9, 11, 12)
Jeff Ballard – drums (tracks 3, 10)

Homes – the fifth album from guitarist Gilad Hekselman – speaks in many languages. Hushed offerings, beatific jaunts, fluid bebop, empyrean dreams, and Brazilian allure are all in play as Hekselman furthers his reputation as an artist who’s fluent in a variety of musical tongues.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some slapped-together smorgasbord. It need be noted that there is a through line here: all of this music, regardless of style, conveys compassion, warmth, and humanity. There’s tremendous heart in Hekselman’s work and that’s evident in his every song, solo, and gesture.

After recording three other albums together and spending a decade working with one another, Hekselman and his trio mates – bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore – have found their collective voice and finely calibrated it, pulling every ounce of expression from their individual efforts and interactions. That’s obvious in the way these three glide through Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare,” pursue astral paths during “Cosmic Patience,” and move from a quiet and dignified stance to a position of controlled intensity on “Verona.” In each of those instances, this trio remains focused on sonic depth of field, allowing the music to present in multidimensional fashion.

While Hekselman places a high value on creating and maintaining a specific group dynamic, he also makes it known that he’s not averse to shaking things up a bit: with “Home E-Minor” he delivers a classically-oriented guitar piece, and on two tracks he invites drummer Jeff Ballard into the picture, bringing a wholly different energy into the mix. On one of those numbers – a good-natured take on Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” – Ballard and Hekselman work together to give the music some lilting, Afro–Caribbean inflections; on the other–“KeeDee,” which takes its name from a drum endemic to Ghana and Togo-Ballard joins with the trio and serves as a catalyst.

Personnel adjustments and stylistic shifts ultimately help to maintain interest here, but they never obscure or alter Hekselman’s voice. In fact, his ability to maintain his identity through it all drives home the point that Hekselman is a true original. (Dan Bilawsky)

frankFrank Sinatra
A Voice on Air: 1935–1955 

(Columbia/Legacy Recordings)
Frank Sinatra Nat “King” Cole, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, The Pied Pipers, June Hutton, Johnny Mercer, Slim Gaillard, others – vocals
Axel Stordahl – arrangements
Benny Goodman – clarinet
Tommy Dorsey – trombone
(many others)

2015 marks the Centennial of Frank Sinatra, one of the most distinctive and influential voices in American history. Scholars still argue whether or not Sinatra was a jazz singer or a pop singer with jazz leanings… and while such concepts make for good debates it doesn’t alter his impact one whit. There are few pop singers (and some jazz singers too) – including those of the rock & roll era(s) – that weren’t directly or indirectly swayed by the iconic style of the Man Who Would Be Chairman of the Board. Sinatra admitted that instrumentalists Tommy Dorsey and Lester Young influenced his approach to singing (he tried to sing with similar phrasing to Dorsey’s trombone) and he maintained that Billie Holiday was a significant inspiration as well. (Not so much vocally, but in the way she could “get inside a song,” said Sinatra, and make it hers.) A Voice on Air is a four-disc collection of radio broadcasts spanning the years 1935 to ’55, when Ol’ Blue Eyes transitioned from band singer to teen idol to sophisticated song stylist. While many fans maintain that his Capitol Records period (mid ’50 to early ‘60s) was his artistic peak (for good reason), his Columbia era had more than its share of gems, and laid the groundwork for his ascent to American music’s Mount Olympus. Further, fans and collectors: This set features many previously unreleased songs, including a few that Sinatra never recorded in the studio (as in, for singles and albums), plus there are some very fun selections of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing with some cool guests.

The earliest material finds Sinatra developing his own style–he’s still a bit under the sway of Big Crosby (as were many singers in that era) but he’s got that swing and oy, that clear, pure range, and the utter ease in which he employed it. (Some of today’s over-singing pop vocalists could learn that lesson, but I digress.) While this could be construed as a put-down but it isn’t – on many of the songs (especially on disc one) Sinatra sounds like a teen idol. (The suave hepcat-about-town with the world on a string came much later.) It’s all there: puppy–dog earnestness; starry-eyed, romantic almost to the point of being treacly – but the seeds of greatness were there and one can hear it come to fruition. What’s also neat-o about this is we get to hear Sinatra in the seldom–heard context of small groups, such as the Benny Goodman Sextet and the Nat “King” Cole Trio, and while he’s best in the rich orchestral settings but Sinatra could scale-back and integrate into an intimate, swinging small band setting. There’s a gorgeous “You Brought A New Kind of Love To Me” with a Peggy Lee, sounding very much like Billie Holiday and a bit of hepcat jive-talking with Slim Gaillard and some gosh-we-love-showbiz flag-wavers with Doris Day and Jimmy Durante (who used to be a jazz pianist, btw). Sinatra engages in duets with some gents that co-wrote that Great American Songbook, namely Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer, both of whom make up for in genial gusto what they lack in vocal quality (especially compared to Sinatra). There’s also some bits of world history included, namely a news bulletin announcing the World War II Allied invasion of Normandy, and some spontaneous occurrences, such as where Sinatra in mid-croon snaps, “Shaddap!” to some hapless type off–mike. There’s an instrumental take on “Exactly Like You” that sounds suspiciously like Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” an proto–industrial composition used in many Warner Brothers cartoons of the period.

The musical accompaniment is mostly by network orchestras conducted by Axel Stordahl, who’d go on to do the deed for Sinatra’s classic Capitol era, as well as a few selections helmed by former Sinatra employers Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. This package is momentous in that we not only get to hear the growth of Sinatra as a vocalist and performer but because these were live broadcasts, we get to hear a warm extemporaneity, one which doesn’t happen in a studio – there were no re-takes. For Sinatra fans and fans of American Songbook pop of these years, this is ESSENTIAL. (Mark Keresman)

tokyoCharlie Haden and Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!)

Charlie Haden – bass
Gonzalo Rubalcaba – piano

Recorded in 2005, this lustrous live recording finds the late, lamented bassist Charlie Haden in what was a favorite setting for him: a duo with a sympathetically minded pianist. Haden had been instrumental in introducing the Cuban virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba to a wider audience in 1989; later recordings including The Blessing (1991), Nocturne (2001) and Land Of The Sun (2004) found the two fruitfully interacting in a variety of group settings. Here, reduced to one-on-one rapport, their mutual focus never drifts from intimacy and deep listening.

Rubalcaba was obviously a gifted pianist when Haden first encountered him, but in the fifteen or so years since those early musical unions and this recording he had further matured, remarkably so. The bursting-at-the-seams virtuosity displayed throughout such early recordings as The Montreal Tapes and Discovery: Live at Montreux is reigned in to such a degree that Rubalcaba sounds as if he had taken on the robes of a wholly other pianist. And a much more satisfying one. In place of spectacular yet too often emotionally barren technical displays are carefully considered melody readings and whispered dashs of chiseled melodic invention, all expressed with an exquisite attention to tonal beauty.

Whether Haden, a noted minimalist, himself contributed to his partner’s artistic decision to scale back his technique is an open question, but the bassist certainly reacts with heightened responsiveness to Rubalaba’s newer economical style. (That Haden must somehow have sensed that the young keyboard hot shot he first encountered ultimately had the makings of a sensitive stylist within him is testament to Haden’s own vaunted musical acuity and wide open ears.) Saying what needs to be said and wasting precious few notes in doing so, the two compatriots allow us to eavesdrop on a scintillating, blissfully understated, musical conversation.

“En La Orilla Del Mundo,” first heard on Nocturne decked out with strings and a stirring Joe Lovano horn statement, here gains heightened splendor by way of instrumental reduction, which also immediately alerts us to the beauty of Rublacaba’s touch and his attention to dynamics. Haden’s “Sandino,” which the duo had previously recorded on The Blessing alongside drummer Jack DeJohnette, also loses nothing in its scaled-down form; Haden shadows the pianist’s lines with his trademark pared–to–the–bone note choices, his oak solid tone enveloping the atmosphere. “Solamente Una Vez,” given an trio reading on Land Of The Sun, is granted new grandeur through simplicity, while the Ornette Coleman anthem, “When Will The Blues Leave,” highlighted by noteworthy pianistic thrift and an extended unaccompanied Haden solo, finds the duo romping gently and effectively through the blues. Rubalcaba’s stately and effecting original, “Nocturne” (also heard on Nocturne) is a perfect set closer, a temperate kiss goodbye to a notably attentive audience.

Which leaves the set’s masterpiece, “My Love and I,” the neglected David Raksin theme from the 1954 film Apache revived by Haden on the Quartet West album, Always Say Goodbye. Throughout this stunning performance Rubalcaba calls to mind prime era Bill Evans at his most contemplative, first shading Haden’s opening solo with the kind of sensitivity and care that only the most bonded of musical partners can share and then etching his own lyrical improvisation in the subtlest of hues. A performance, and an album, to be treasured as an unexpected gift. (Steve Futterman)

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