Hot Wax – Album Reviews: March 2017

March 20, 2017

Donny McCaslin: Beyond Now (Motema)

  • Donny McCaslin – clarinet, flute, alto flute
  • Mark Guiliana – drums
  • Tim Lefebvre – bass
  • Jason Linder – keyboards
  • Jeff Taylor – vocals
  • Nate Wood – guitar

While in New York City, appearing in a stage play, protean rock icon David Bowie visited some of the city’s jazz haunts – turns out The Thin White Duke was a jazz fan (Who knew?). Bowie was planning what would be his final album, Blackstar, and the band he heard in a small club greatly impressed him – that band’s tenor saxophonist was Donny McCaslin, and Bowie invited him to record. While not an outright attempt at jazz, Bowie indirectly drew upon jazz as part of the sonic palette he envisioned for the oft-otherworldly-sounding Blackstar. Shortly after the album’s completion, Bowie passed away – Beyond Now is dedicated to him and features four of the players from Blackstar: McCaslin; Jason Lindner, keyboards, Tim Lefebvre, bass, and Mark Guiana, drums, with assistance from David Binney, Jeff Taylor, and Nate Wood.

While he could’ve taken an easy route – jazz versions of Bowie tunes, for instance – McCaslin has fashioned an album inspired by the vast sonic range of Bowie along with Blackstar itself. While two Bowie co-compositions are included “A Small Plot of Land” and “Warszawa” – it’s mostly original compositions. Stylistically, it’s post bop with overtones of fusion and the avant-garde (of both the jazz and rock spheres). McCaslin has a bright yet steely sound – imagine some of the best aspects of Ernie Watts and Wayne Shorter; not overly “warm”-sounding yet impassioned. The opener “Shake Loose” begins with burbling synthesizer and agitated tenor, with McCaslin digging down deep in the lower registers and reaching for some harrowing Albert Ayler-like high-register heights contrast to the piece’s majestic, almost cinematic theme. “Bright Abyss” has a majestic theme and some dense electronic textures – McCaslin cuts through them like a ship emerging from a murky fog, Linder’s electric piano shimmering like ocean wave. This track evokes the “goth jazz” of the first Weather Report album. McCaslin tackles a very unusual Bowie piece – “Warszawa” was mostly instrumental, a deep, heartfelt sigh of synthesized strings that bore a vague (and beautiful) semblance to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” McCaslin maintains the haunting, elegiac tone while recasting as a dirge-like jazz ballad, McCaslin’s tenor opening Bowie’s melody and exploring the melancholy in a manner both tender and harrowing. “Glory,” a McCaslin original, begins mid-tempo but gradually builds to a dramatic climax, featuring some sterling lyrical acoustic piano from Lindner, the notes seeming to stick to his fingers as honey would, with a great churning-then-wailing solo from McC. If one expects theme-solos-theme structure of this set, one will be disappointed (but make no mistake, there is great soloing herein). This is the product of a band, the approach geared for ensemble playing and journey-to-the-center-of-the-mind dream-scapes – yet the music always has rhythmic oomph, forward impetus. Bowie – who recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and a fan of Stan Kenton [!]– would likely approve of this heartfelt, inimitable homage. (Mark Keresman)

Brad Myers & Michael Sharfe: Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs) (Colloquy Records)

  • Brad Myers – electric guitar, acoustic guitar, guitar bongos (1)
  • Michael Sharfe – double bass, fretless electric bass (6), percussion (1, 5, 11)
  • Dan Dorff Jr. – drums and cymbals (2, 6, 8)
  • Tom Buckley – drums and cymbals (5, 9, 12)
  • Marc Wolfley –percussion (9, 11)
  • Dan Karlsberg – melodica (1)

The titular plant – also known as bloodroot – serves as symbol, metaphor, compound word, and more for the Cincinnati-based duo of guitarist Brad Myers and bassist Michael Sharfe. Sanguinaria canadensis’ carmine-colored sap is a parallel to the music-enriched blood running through the veins of these men, the plant has the ability to produce a double flower that speaks to this particular duo design, and the sanguine-aria word melding – linking optimism and melodicism – is perfectly reflective of the tone of these recordings. A more apt linguistic marriage of nature’s wonders and musical expression doesn’t and couldn’t exist for this pair.  
Sensitivity reigns supreme here, as Myers and Sharfe use their easy rapport to paint a variety of moods and styles with nary an aggressive agenda in sight. But that’s not to say these songs lack passion.  In fact, there’s a radiant glow to much of this material, due in large part to the musical concord between all parties. A unity of expression and purpose manages to yield plenty of energy, but it all registers at low and controlled impact.
This duo favors felicitous covers on this date, with eight inspired choices in the mix. The highlight list includes a cheery take on Gerry Mulligan’s “Line For Lyons,” offering a trading of foreground and background roles; a memorable trip through Paul Bollenback’s gorgeously serene, previously unrecorded “A Feeling Inspired By Maria”; a low-key, Latin-tinged arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s “Great Pumpkin Waltz”; a solo bass feature for Sharfe on Keith Jarrett’s bucolic “Country”; and an album-capping performance of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” benefitting greatly from the addition of drummer Tom Buckley and the resultant tripartite symbiosis.
Myers’ pen fills out the playlist, adding four originals that operate in different realms yet complement one another. The title track is a sunny and soulful concoction graced by Dan Karlsberg’s melodica and built with Baroque and Brazilian flavors, “In From Somewhere” is a swinging reflection on Johnny Green’s “Out Of Nowhere” enlivened by Dan Dorff Jr.’s dancing ride cymbal, the Pat Metheny-influenced “Norm’s Ridge” is an excitable ride that finds Sharfe moving to fretless electric bass, and “Bentley’s Blues” is a conversational twelve-bar blues born at the dawn of this partnership. Those pieces stand tall as individual statements, each makes for good company for the others, and all sit well next to the covers. Myers and Sharfe clearly know how to pick them, put them together, and play them. (Dan Bilawsky)    

Sonny Rollins Trio/Horace Silver Quintet: Live in Zurich/Swiss Radio Days – Vol. 40 (TCB)

  • Sonny Rollins – tenor sax
  • Henry Grimes – bass
  • Pete La Roca – drums
  • Horace Silver – piano
  • Junior Cook – tenor sax
  • Blue Mitchell – trumpet
  • Gene Taylor – bass
  • Louis Hayes – drums

Oh, those Europeans with their appreciation of American jazz! The Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series consists of previously unreleased (officially, at any rate) live in the studio recordings for radio broadcast and some enterprising types have been getting them into the once-popular [ahem] CD format. Naturally, there are diamonds in the not-so-rough (the recording quality is generally excellent) in the catacombs/archives and this is one. While most volumes feature a single performer/leader, Zurich 1959 Vol. 40 has approximately half the running time given to the Sonny Rollins Trio, the other half to the Horace Silver Quintet.

The Rollins set features a soon-to-be legendary free jazz bassist Henry Grimes, and drummer Pete La Roca. For novices, Rollins had (and still has) one of the most distinctive approaches to the tenor sax – a hard, steely yet fervent tone, burly yet graceful, unsentimental and thoughtful yet gregarious. Rollins’ Trio play four standards and one Sonny original that became a standard, “Oleo.” This threesome swings hard –Grimes’ bass lines are pliant and buoyant, La Roca plays with crispness and snap in the mode of Mas Roach and Roy Haynes, and Rollins has such a BIG sound you’ll forget there’s no chordal instrument (piano, guitar) in the mix. Rollins’ unaccompanied soloing on “It Could Happen to You” is worth the price of admission – sometimes he croons, other times comes out with knotty lines and judicious touches of trills, honks, and blatts.

This edition of the Horace Silver group in it’s hard bop phase, headed toward but not quite at the subtly funky soul jazz grooves for which he’d become famous in the 1960s. The songs, all Silver originals, are catchy and immediate, and his band shines, especially Blue Mitchell, whose playing has some of the rippling muscularity of Lee Morgan; Junior Cook’s tenor has something of a hard tone on the outside but with a creamy caramel center. “Shirl” is just piano, bass, and drums and it’s a luminous ballad in which Silver uses minimal notes for maximum effect, slightly like Thelonious Monk but Silver is more conventionally harmonious. The closer “Senor Blues” point to the Silver sound of the ‘60s – an insidiously catchy repetitive piano riff driving the song (slightly evoking Peanuts music maker Vince Guaraldi, no piano slouch himself and foreshadows Silver’s hit “Song for My Father”), subdued horns playing melancholy bluesy unison motifs, and a slinky groove.

Fans of Rollins and/or Silver will likely need this but this music is so immediate and joyful it’s recommended to hard bop beginners as well. (Mark Keresman)

New Releases

The Sugar Hill Trio
The Drive (Goschart Music)
Release Date: Jan. 6

Baron Tymas
Montréal (Tymas Music)
Release Date: Jan. 23

Valerie June
The Order Of Time (Concord Music Group, Inc.)
Release Date: Jan. 27

Luke Sellick
Alchemist (Cellar Live)
>Release Date: Mar. 10

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