Hot Wax: Album Reviews – August/September 2019

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Ernie Watts Quartet

Home Light (Flying Dolphin)

  • Ernie Watts – saxophones
  • Christof Saenger – piano
  • Rudi Engel – acoustic bass
  • Heinrich Koebberling – drums

Whether you, Dear Reader, know it or not you’ve heard saxophonist Ernie Watts many, MANY times if you’ve been anywhere near sound-sources for the past few decades. Aside from his jazz credentials as a leader and side-person (Buddy Rich, Gerald Wilson, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West), Grammy-winner Watts has been featured on recordings of Frank Zappa, The Jacksons and Marvin Gaye as well as soundtracks to “The Color Purple” (film) and “Night Court” (TV show).

Watts has a distinctive approach – on tenor he’s shiny-steely like unto Sonny Rollins but his tone is more lissome, slightly alto-like, but he can get slightly breathy-romantic when the need arises. Home Light features Watts with his European-based Quartet, 18 years strong – they play as a BAND (as opposed to a bunch assembled for a session), with all the economy and punch that goes with that, with a program of mostly originals. “Café Central 2am” is a yeaning-but-not-melancholy ballad with Watts’ genially muscular playing slightly evoking Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme” in spots. Christof Saenger plays the 88s with plenty of spare, late night, set-‘em-up-Joe panache. “Frequent Flyiers” (that’s the spelling) has a bit of Thelonious Monk/Frank Zappa-like angularity and quirkiness, plus some truly blazing Watts, punctuated by some agitated/free flurries (think Coltrane, David S. Ware) and some brief gruff bluesy grind. Saenger’s playing soars as well, adding some spiky clusters to his Bud Powell-like flow. “Horizon” is a true romantic ballad in the old-school/classic sense, Watts achingly exorcizing every bit of the she-done-left-me blues. Saenger glimmers like starlight on a date night and the rest of the combo keep the elegant groove moving ever forward. The rollicking “Joe” is hard bop with a dynamic theme, a Latin-esque rhythm and Watts making like a sax section via overdubbing. Drummer Heinrich Koebberling is explosive here, Rudi Engel’s bass is sinewy, and Watts adding tart soprano to wail alongside his surging tenor. The closer is the title track which brings it all back home with some positively exultant gospel-infused tenor – sanctified! The rest of the gents gradually dial it back with some earnest blue notes from Saenger and the rhythm team sounds like waves churning against a rocky shore.

Home Light is not a bunch of pros going through their paces, but some seasoned cats pushing things into high gear – this is some top-shelf stuff! (Mark Keresman)

Ted Nash with Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison

Somewhere Else: West Side Story Songs (Plastic Sax Records)

  • Ted Nash – saxophone, clarinet
  • Ben Allison – bass
  • Steve Cardenas – guitar

If more proof was ever needed that “West Side Story” remains the most beloved of classic Broadway musicals, it’s the fact that Steven Spielberg has recently directed his own film version; slated for 2020 release, it’s also his first musical production. (It will also be recognized as a remake of the award-winning 1961 film, the basic source of the show’s continued popularity.)

Granted that this “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation has a timeless theme of racial and social conflict that couldn’t be more relevant today, it’s Leonard Bernstein’s score (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) that also maintains perennial appeal. Brimming with memorable songs–some rousing, some menacing, some unbearably touching – the score has resonated with generations of listeners since the show premiered in 1957.

Commemorating Bernstein’s centenary, the trio of the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Ted Nash, the guitarist Steve Cardenas, and the bassist Ben Allison take on his most popular work with a gusto touched by obvious reverence. And in doing so they triumphantly celebrate both the illustrious composer, and a key stylistic influence for the trio: Jimmy Giuffre. By casting themselves in the mode of Giuffre’s classic winds-guitar-bass trio of 1956 (which featured Jim Hall and introduced the landmark piece “Train and the River”) Nash and his compatriots pay tribute to the cool, chamber jazz aesthetic that, despite its subdued charm, tends to slip in and out of the popular jazz imagination. The character of the trio, which balances the virtuosity of the individual players amidst rock solid ensemble unity, declares itself a perfect conduit for Bernstein’s indelible music.

Yet a listener is continually caught up in the seeming paradox of how music so inherently rhythmic in nature can be expressed with such aplomb by a band that hasn’t a percussion instrument in sight. The key is that each trio member calls on his own inner drummer, summoning up a syncopated panache that keeps the performances fluid and exciting.  On the score’s percolating tunes the trio snap and bite – with the consistently inventive Nash channeling an assertive approach on tenor that is anything but cool inspired – while also maintaining a deliberate composure.

The arrangements, primarily by Nash (a key factor of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger) augmented by contributions from Cardenas and Allison, keep the brilliant sheen of Bernstein’s creations always in view, while leaving room for compelling improvisations and spirited interplay. “Tonight” opens with two-and-a-half minutes of delightful improvised counterpoint between all three band mates, while “America” bobs along to what sounds like a warm weather get together between Giuffre and Sonny Rollins. “Maria,” with Nash on sprightly clarinet, bounces with an unaccustomed spring thanks to Allison’s jaunty bassline; Allison also provides the slippery bedrock for a disarming duet with Nash on “Cool.” “A Boy Like That,” an extended “Something’s Coming,” and the penultimate version of “Somewhere,” taken at a brisker tempo than usual, exhibit the unforced symmetry of this commendable ensemble.

The ballads – “One Hand , One Heart,” highlighting Nash’s aching tenor, “I Have a Love”  (a Cardenas-Nash duet with more fetching tenor) and the closing reprise of “Somewhere” – are predictably expressive but blissfully free of maudlin emotionality.

While “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” may be missed, Somewhere Else makes a robust case for the continued popularity and adaptability of this brilliant score as well as the hopeful endurance of a superb trio. (Steve Futterman)

Quiana Lynell

A Little Love (Concord Jazz)

  • Quiana Lynell – vocals
  • Cyrus Chestnut – acoustic & electric piano
  • Ed Cherry – guitar
  • Jameson Ross – drums, vocals
  • George DeLancey – bass
  • Monty Croft – vibes, Fender Rhodes piano
  • Quiana’s family – background vocals

Texas-born and based Louisiana-based, vocalist Quiana Lynell is a singer in the old-school mode of Dinah Washington and Kay Starr. While Lynell is indeed a jazz singer, like the aforementioned she does all manner of songs and channels a wealth of influences. Washington and Starr recorded jazz and blues but also pop, and Lynell does likewise, including soul/rhythm & blues (circa 1970s), gospel and more recent groove-jazz styles. (Lynell has SUCH an impressive vocal range I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d studied opera and/or leider.)

A Little Love is her maiden voyage and it’s IMPRESSIVE, by gum. Lynell has a mellifluous, slightly husky voice somewhat reminiscent of Chaka Khan and Nina Simone, and she can scat-sing as effortlessly swinging as Anita O’Day, as “You Hit the Spot” amply demonstrates. Dusty Springfield’s “Just a Little Lovin’” (from her classic Dusty in Memphis platter) is both lilting and sultry, Cyrus Chestnut’s keys shinning like the morn’s first rays, Lynell’s come-hither warble soaring toward the heavens in the manner Ella Fitzgerald or Beverly Sills in their respective primes. But unlike some voices who shall go unnamed, her confident use of technique is not in-your-face (err, ear) – it draws attention to the song, not just the singer. “We Are” has an undulating groove that’s lent savor by Monty Croft’s crystalline, Milt Jackson-esque vibes. Donny Hathaway’s “Tryin’ Times” is a “What’s Goin’ On”-style morality tale, replete with guitarist Ed Cherry’s bluesy, fat notes and Lynell’s supple voice rich with streetwise savvy and touches of hope, her supple phrasing delightfully wringing the words for all they’re worth.

Her accompaniment is aces – spare and economical but never stark. Chestnut in particular is a joy to behold (behear?), lyrical, involving and classy all the way, just oozing blues and gospel undertones. A Little Love could wind up being one of the debut discs of 2019. (Mark Keresman)

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