Hot Wax – Album Reviews: October 2015

October 27, 2015

offering

Charenee Wade

Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (Motema)

Charenee Wade – vocals & arrangements

Stefon Harris – vibes

Brandon McClune – piano

Dave Stryker – guitar

Lonnie Plaxico – bass

Alvester Garnett – drums

Marcus Miller – bass clarinet (track 6)

Lakecia Benjamin – alto saxophone (track 6)

Malcolm Jamal-Warner (track 6), Christian McBride (track 9) – spoken word

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) was both of his time and ahead of his time – he was a poet and singer that performed with jazz (with frequent funk overtones) accompaniment. During his 1970s and early ‘80s heyday, Scott-Heron was a chronicler of inner-city African-American life and a commentator on the political climate in the USA under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter (“Mr. Peanut”), and Reagan. Scott-Heron was a major influence on hip hop but he wasn’t a big fan of it himself, decrying a deficit of musicality and an abundance of “posturing.” Charenee Wade is a jazz singer and educator, who placed First Runner-Up in the 2010 Thelonius Monk International Vocal Competition and sang on albums helmed by Eric Reed and Rufus Reid. Her second album as a leader is a homage to the music of Scott-Heron and his musical collaborator Brian Jackson. 

While Scott-Heron recited as much as he sang, Offering is all Ms. Wade’s singing plus spoken interludes by Malcolm Jamal-Warner and Christian McBride. Wade has a smoothly deep, velvety voice in the tradition(s) of Sarah Vaughan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dianne Reeves. Where Scott-Heron would often have irresistibly funky grooves, Wade deemphasizes them in favor of pensive swing –“Song of the Wind” has her voice intertwining with Stefon Harris’ ringing, driving vibes, Brandon McCune’s alternately easygoing and darting piano, and Alvester Garnett’s blustery drums. “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is a harrowing account of how a seriously dysfunctional family life led to self-destruction via drug addiction – the band swings up a proverbial storm behind Wade’s words, soaring and searing like unto a saxophone.

While much of Scott-Heron’s words and music were heated –“Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till”– there were undertones of humor and hope. “Peace Go With You, Brother” finds Wade’s cautiously expectant tone taking on wee moments of gospel fervor and Harris’ solo, while ringing in tone, virtually drips the blues. The closer “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” has a jaunty, calypso-hinted guitar intro by Dave Stryker and Wade singing over the rainbow and back but not with any cheery platitudes or vague optimism but rather with hard-won wisdom. 

Offering is noteworthy on several levels. Wade truly adapts and channels Scott-Heron’s words and music (some of Scott-Heron’s works were songs, some were poetry/recitations with jazz accompaniment) to her personal vision, truly making them her own. These songs convey righteous ire and frustration yet Wade’s sultry vocal style does not compromise Scott-Heron’s words one iota–she simply transforms them into potent, heady, and direct vocal jazz with socio-political bearing. Further, her band is tight and inspired; the musicians’ sharp, economical playing accenting and contrasting the passion of the words and the poignancy of the singing. Aside from being a “win” for Wade, this fine album may introduce the words of Gil Scott-Heron to a new generation or two. (Mark Keresman)

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Jimmy Heath

Picture of Heath (Elemental Music)

Barry Harris – Piano

Jimmy Heath – Soprano and Tenor Sax

Billy Higgins – Drums

Sam Jones – Bass

Today, at 89-years-old, Jimmy Heath, the eminent saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator, is an acknowledged éminence grise of jazz. Yet it’s instructive and humbling to remember that back in 1975, Heath was the very definition of the musician’s musician, his reputation restricted mainly to his peers. A stirring improviser working during four decades that found him surrounded by superlative players (Gordon, Rollins, Coltrane, Shorter, et. al.) who necessarily stole his thunder, Heath may have been best known for the memorable compositions that others had brought to fame (“C.T.A.” and “Gingerbread Boy” as recorded by Miles Davis; “Gemini,” a signature performance by Cannonball Adderley; “Picture of Heath” interpreted by Art Pepper and Chet Baker). Steadily recording as a leader and a trusted sideman throughout the Sixties and Seventies, but always somehow slipping clear of star status, Heath was basically hidden in plain sight.

Come 1975 things were about to change. In addition to forming the Heath Brothers band with his siblings Percy on bass and Albert (“Tootie”) on drums that year, Heath also went into the studio at the behest of Don Schlitten, the producer of some of Heath’s finest earlier recordings and the head of his own label, Xanadu. The result was the emblematic Picture Of Heath, which is now being reissued by Elemental Music as part of the Xanadu Master Edition Series.

A quartet date, rather than employing the enlarged ensembles that Heath had been partial to on earlier albums, Picture Of Heath found the leader supported by a chiseled rhythm section that speaks of Schlitten’s masterful guidance: the bassist Sam Jones, the drummer Billy Higgins and the pianist Barry Harris. Schlitten’s raison d’être seems obvious. Heath was in his prime as a player and his producer/biggest fan wanted the world to know about it. Surrounding Heath with a blissfully in sync trio; having him leave his flute at home and concentrate on tenor and soprano saxophones; and keeping celebrated original compositions as the focus (along with one can’t miss standard, “Body and Soul”) was a recipe for potential jazz splendor. In this case, all of the producer’s hunches paid off big.

Heath, as well as the adroit Harris, practiced an authoritative yet distinctly subtle form of contemporary bebop. No charging technically demonstrative displays for them–or for the ever supportive Jones and Higgins for that matter. By this point in time, Heath had obviously been touched by Coltrane’s explorations; you can hear it in what seem to be his knowingly self conscious tonal asides now and then. But things rarely drift from superbly constructed, melodically inclined bebop lines. While there’s no lack of passion from anyone involved (with Higgins’ sizzling cymbal work egging the players on, how could there be?) there’s always a sense of utter control emanating from the proceedings. Sparkling Heath compositions like “For Minors Only,” “C.T.A.,” “All Members,” “Picture of Heath,” and “Bruh’ Slim” receive definitive small group treatments while “Body and Soul”– its ageless theme stated by Heath’s firm soprano before he takes off on a characteristically gorgeous tenor outing – is the classic ballad performance you hoped it would be.

A thoroughly convincing example of neo-bebop at its best, and a sure sign that Heath was about to jettison his insider status, Picture Of Heath was an obvious masterpiece when first released. With time, it may have gotten even better. (Steve Futterman)

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Dave 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-the-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)

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