Album Reviews-August/September 2014

September 5, 2014

kikiKiki Ebsen – Scarecrow Sessions

(Painted Pony Media)

Kiki Ebsen – vocals, piano
John Patitucci – acoustic and electric bass
Henry Hey – piano and organ
Clint de Ganon – drums
Chuck Loeb – acoustic and electric guitars
David Mann – saxophone and flute
Antoine Silverman – violin and viola
Sachi Patitucci – cello

My first exposure to Kiki Ebsen’s father, Buddy Ebsen, was in the black-and-white era of the TV show Disneyland, when he played Georgie, the sidekick to Davy Crockett (damn, those coonskin caps were itchy).  Buddy Ebsen starred in The Beverly Hillbillies for ten years, then Barnaby Jones, where I was a trainee and ran errands on the set.  Buddy was an unassuming man with a sly sense of humor who, when surrounded by the turmoil of making a TV series, would whisper, “It’s only a movie,” and smile.

He’s smiling now at this tribute album made for Father’s Day, Kiki having found some memorabilia of her dad in an old trunk of her mom’s – a find she considers “a gift.”  Here, she surrounds herself with the crème of the current jazz crop. Produced by David Mann and arranged with Kiki, the tunes all have some relationship to her father’s career.

Many of the Scarecrow Sessions songs come from Buddy’s movies (Born to Dance gives us “Easy to Love,” Captain January contains “At the Codfish Ball” (delightfully silly), Breakfast at Tiffany’s has “Moon River,” and the movie he was almost in – The Wizard of Oz – yields us  “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Over the Rainbow.”  His soft-shoe-inspired “Tea for Two” and “Comes Love” reflects his sense of humor. The trunk discovery was “Missing You,” a song written by Buddy and given a melancholy interpretation by Kiki.

The Film Noir choices include “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Laura” (Buddy’s favorite song).  David Mann’s sax sets the mood and the string effects put you on a lonely street under a single lamplight, alone.

The jazziest moments come during “St. Louis Blues” – the piano trio approach is just right for this and we get that duet of Kiki and John P., another Patitucci solo and a nice break from drummer Clint de Ganon.  The little laugh at the end cements the impression of a casual Gin Mill performance.

The sound is excellent.  So are the understated and fitting arrangements. Like her makeup and costume on the cover, this is an Uptown production (think Café Carlyle) with a Downtown feel (the Half Note).  It’s highly approachable and there’s joy in the listening.  (Ron Wright www.rwsoiree.com)

melissaMelissa Aldana & Crash Trio

(Concord Jazz)

Melissa Aldana – tenor saxophone
Pablo Menares – bass
Francisco Mela – drums

If ever there were a testament to the efficacy of jazz education, it’s Melissa Aldana’s new album with her Crash Trio, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela.  Aldana, the first-ever female winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition (2013), is a Berklee College of Music grad (2009), and she had an early leg up: her first teacher in her hometown of Santiago, Chile, was her father, Marco, himself an esteemed saxophonist. But the 25-year-old Aldana’s method is founded on the bedrock of modern jazz pedagogy: transcription. She has spoken about her painstaking transcriptions of recorded saxophone solos direct to her horn (rather than writing them out), slowing down digital recordings (with pitch correction), and proceeding a measure at a time. She’s made it her business to learn the history of her instrument, and on Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, her sound encompasses everyone from Don Byas and Sonny Rollins to Joshua Redman and Mark Turner. But what’s important is how she’s internalized those influences, so that on the new recording you hear a mature artist with her own voice.

At a Berklee master class in 2013, outlining her transcription method, Aldana played a Rich Perry saxophone solo on Charlie Parker’s “Billie Bounce” (recorded with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). “The way he plays each note is really special, don’t you think so?,”  she asked. The same could be said of Aldana. Moment by moment, her phrasing leads your ear with the varied eloquence of her attack and articulation. Of her contemporary heroes, Turner is most evident – you can hear his influence in her taste for sweeping chromatic lines, from the bottom of her horn to the purest altissimo. Aldana distinguishes herself, though, with an overall full-bodied sound, one that can turn from vibratoless glassy smooth to burred and gruff in the space of a phrase. On her previous two albums, you might have heard a bit of calculation in her runs through the chord changes, but her solos on Crash Trio unfold with serendipity. On bassist Pablo Menares’s “Tirapié,” for instance, Aldana, working with Menares and drummer Francisco Mela’s tantalizingly ambiguous pulse, explores eddies and byways of sound as her horn makes sequential scalar climbs to the anticipated high-note climax.

On Aldana’s previous two albums, individual tracks could sometimes turn shaggy and discursive, almost too exploratory for their own good. But on Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, the mix of standards and originals by all three band members never loses focus. Aldana has a talent for start-stop themes, as on the brawny “M&M” or the more airy and lyrical “Turning.” Mela’s “Dear Joe” has a calypso lilt that brings out the Rollins in Aldana. And when the tenor saxophonist takes on a warhorse like Harry Warren’s “You’re My Everything,” she attacks it like a composer, luxuriating in the melody, exploring its harmonic implications with patient concentration. Throughout, the band shows an adept instinct for creating a satisfying release from Latin grooves and odd meters into walking-bass swing.

Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is the perfect closer, an a cappella workout that allows Aldana to explore every facet of her sound (there’s even a Ben Webster growl in there) while sustaining musicality with a very Rollins-like sense of motivic development. The method might be Sonny’s but the sound, at this point, is all Aldana. The love with which she discovers and releases each note shows how technical acumen can translate to soul. It’s early yet for Aldana but, depending on the trajectory of her career, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio could establish itself as one of the most satisfying saxophone trio recordings in the discography. (Jon Garelick  Twitter:
@jgarelick
)

lastdanceKeith Jarrett and Charlie Haden  – Last Dance

(ECM Records)

Keith Jarrett – piano
Charlie Haden – bass

The prophetically titled Last Dance is a bittersweet gift. Consisting of additional performances recorded during the 2007 sessions that reunited pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Charlie Haden – sublime duets that resulted in the acclaimed album, JasmineLast Dance was released just a month before the iconic bassist’s death in July of 2014. The recording now acts as a de facto memorial to a brilliant musician who was still in top form at the time of the encounter. Painfully reminded of what we have recently lost, we’re also granted the opportunity to hear more gorgeously produced sounds from one of the most individual improvisers in jazz history.

Jarrett is no less inspiring. As on Jasmine, the pianist plays with selfless grace, engaging in an intimate musical conversation with a kindred spirit. Although they had once been close collaborators, Jarrett and Haden hadn’t recorded together since the mid-1970s. And interacting with another player apart from the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Jack DeJohnette, with whom he has exclusively played since the dawn of the ‘80s, seems to have had a liberating effect on Jarrett. He sounds particularly relaxed and thoughtful, his lyrical gifts taking pride of place over any undue virtuosic displays. In other words, he’s thoroughly in tune with Haden’s aesthetic: music making as pure emotive expression; a reflection of the openness of the heart rather than the speed of the fingers.

The reliance on ballads and mid-tempo pieces allows the pair to focus on the construction of robust melody and deeply felt improvisation. (As on “Jasmine,” there’s only one up-tempo performance on the album – here it’s a romp on Bud Powell’s “Dance Of the Infidels.”)  Sturdy standards including “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” “My Ship,” “Everything Happens To Me” and a reprise of  “Goodbye” (also heard on Jasmine are given fresh, vibrant interpretations. “’Round Midnight,” which finds the telepathically linked partners improvising at length before stating the immortal theme as a closing statement, is a fitting testimony to their exceptional artistry and rare kinship.

lotusJeff Colella and Putter Smith – Lotus Blossom

(The American Jazz Institute)

Jeff Colella – piano
Putter Smith – bass

The team of pianist Jeff Colella and the bassist Putter Smith may not have the name recognition of Jarrett and Haden, but their own duet album may be as rewarding as Last Dance. Both musician’s musicians with longtime associations on the West Coast jazz scene, Colella is best known as an esteemed LA studio stalwart, while Smith gained recognition as the bassist in Alan Broadbent’s trios. Lotus Blossom shares a distinctive sensibility with Last Dance in that each album displays the rare rapport that can be achieved when two players listen to each other with intense acuity. Like Jarrett and Haden, Colella and Smith are frugal minded virtuosos who intuitively comprehend each other’s deepest artistic intentions. There’s not a wasted note here, not a superfluous phrase, not a spotlight-grabbing run. Making music, achieved by the mysterious interaction of two like-minded artists, rather than the prowess of the individual musician, is the exalted goal.

Lotus Blossom also shares with Last Dance a poignant quality reflected in an affecting repertoire. Bill Evans’s “Time Remembered,” Larry Koonse’s “Candle,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” the venerable standard, “The Very Thought Of You” and Colella’s “Gone Too Soon”  bring out extraordinarily sensitive, yet never maudlin, playing from these two underrated stylists. A quiet album that fosters, and rewards, close listening, Lotus Blossom is not to be overlooked.
(Steve Futterman)

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