Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Basic Basie" (Remastered)

This article was first published at Blogcritics

When it comes to swinging big band jazz there are always the familiar names at the top of the list—Goodman, Dorsey, Ellington, and of course Basie. And whenever their work happens to get another life as from some newly discovered archived performance, or a reissue of an out of print album, it is easy to see why. Great soloists, tight ensemble work: these outfits are the crowning glory of the middle of the last century. So when that antique material comes available, you don’t want to miss out on it.

MPS, the German record company is in the process of releasing re-mastered CDs of music from its back catalogue, and among those releases is a fine 1969 recording of the Count Basie Orchestra, called Basic Basie. This is an album that had also been released in the U. S. by Verve records, both as a single LP and a two LP set. The MPS reissue is limited to the single.

Featured on the album are Basie’s tenor saxophone stalwart, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, guitarist Freddie Green, and trumpeter Oscar Brashear. In addition, as the limited liner notes point out, Basie, at the request of MPS head Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, did a lot more work on the piano than was his normal practice. Chico O’Farrill, though best known for his Afro-Cuban music, handled the arrangements on all but one of the album’s dozen tunes with a real feel for the Basie vibe.  Tenor sax man and flautist Eric Dixon gets credit for the haunting arrangement of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”

The majority of the album consists of selections from the Great American Songbook. Basie’s piano introduces a fine version of the classic “Moonglow” and a shorter preface to a laid back “Sweet Lorraine.” He comes back later in the number to take the tune to conclusion. He is also spotlighted on a torrid “Ain’t Misbehaving.”

The set opens with the up-tempo “Idaho” and closes with a sweetly syncopated “I’ve Got the World on a String.” They have fun with a witty arrangement of a novelty number like “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me,” while riffing their way through Basie’s original “M-Squad.” “Blues in My Heart,” “Red Roses for a Blue Lady,” “Don’t Worry Bout Me,” and “As Long as I Live” complete this lively trip to Basie country.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Re-issues From MPS

This article was first published at Blogcritics

As if the recent reissues of music by a roster of major American and German jazz artists from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) weren’t gift enough, along comes MPS Records (Musik Produktion Schwarzwald) with their Kultur Spiegel series and the promise of the current release of 25 remastered albums and by the end of the year the digital release of their entire back catalogue. Among the names scheduled for release are Lionel Hampton, Billy Taylor, Count Basie, Sun Ra, and Stephane Grapelli, and that barely scratches the surface. American jazz artists found an eager and appreciative audience as well as a vital jazz scene in Germany after the Second World War, and the positive atmosphere often brought out the best in them. There are certainly some gems soon to be made available.

Great musicians, fine sound—sounds like a combination that’s hard to beat.

For example, Jim Hall, certainly a name that belongs near the top of any reasonable list of great jazz guitarists shows his stuff in a 1969 trio recording, Jim Hall in Berlin: It’s Nice to Be With You. Working with bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Daniel Humair, he runs through a set of eight tunes ranging from the Jimmy Webb pop winner made famous by The Fifth Dimension, “Up, Up And Away” through a swinging take on the standard, “My Funny Valentine” to Duke Ellington’s classic “In A Sentimental Mood.” The Hall set includes three originals, “Young One, For Debra,” “Blue Joe,” and “Romaine,” as well as the album’s title tune written by his wife Jane Herbert. It is a fine set showing off the guitarist in his many moods and a welcome addition to the Hall discography.

Then there’s piano master Hank Jones perhaps unfortunately best remembered as Marilyn Monroe’s accompanist when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden who shows up in an excellent trio recording of his own, Have You Met This Jones? Recorded in 1978, he plays with Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger and German drummer Kurt Bong, both of whom rise to the occasion. Indeed he plays three tunes he had previously recorded on his 1955 release, The Trio where he was joined by bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Clarke, “There’s A Small Hotel,” “We’re All Together,” and “Now’s The Time,” and the new versions hold their own.

The set also includes his brother Thad’s “Portions,” Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and the jazz standard many of us will always associate with jazz broadcaster Fred Robbins, “Robbin’s Nest.”

These are two fine albums, and from what MPS has available, it looks like there is plenty more to come.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Music Review: "Collective Portrait" Eddie Henderson

This article was first published at Blogcritics

 Septuagenarian trumpet jazz master Eddie Henderson’s Collective Portrait was the February release in the monthly series inaugurated last year by Smoke Sessions Records, and like nearly every album in the series, it is a winner. Age has not dimmed Henderson, if anything, like a great wine, it has enriched his playing. Like many a fine musician,  he has never garnered the kind of popular fame his playing certainly deserved, but over the years he has consistently delivered the goods playing with some very well-known  jazz names—most notably Herbie Hancock and Art Blakey.

Often compared to the great Miles Davis for his lyrical prowess, Henderson chose the title for his new album from a Davis quip defining the collaborative essence of the best jazz: “A collective portrait is better than a self-portrait.” Also pointing out the care that Davis would take in choosing compatible musicians to work with, he chose side men that he had worked with over the years, side men with chemistry. George Cables plays piano and Rhodes, Doug Weiss, bass and Carl Allen is on drums. Gary Bartz plays alto saxophone on six of the album’s ten songs. Together they have come up with one fine album, an album that like some of the others in the Smoke Sessions series has been at the top of The Cool Jazz Countdown.  

The set opens with two original pieces, “Sunburst” and “Dreams,” and adds two by Cables, “Morning Song” and “Beyond Forever,” all revisiting earlier recorded material. He includes a number of songs by musicians he considers his mentors, teachers and friends: Freddy Hubbard’s “First Light,” Jimmy Heath’s “Ginger Bread Boy” which he first heard on Miles Smiles, and Woody Shaw’s “Zoltan.”
But perhaps the highlights of the album are the lyrical ballads (with apologies to Wordsworth). 

Pianist Duke Pearson’s “You Know I Care” is a sonic romance and Natsuko Henderson’s “Together” is a tender, melodious tribute to their years together. Ballads demand a sensitive touch else they melt into sentimental schmaltz, not from the horn of Eddie Henderson, not to my ear.

The album liner notes consist of Damon Smith’s interview with Henderson and are filled with interesting biographical material, including Henderson’s childhood visit backstage at the Apollo theater to meet Louis Armstrong, his teenage prowess as a figure skater, and his pursuit of a medical degree eventually specializing in and practicing psychiatry. Eddie Henderson is the very model of the Renaissance man.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: "The Revenant" by Michael Punke

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Originally published in 2002, Michael Punke’s fictional account of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s wilderness meeting with a grizzly bear in 1823 and its stranger than fiction results, The Revenant, is back in a new edition from Picador as a tie in with a film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy and directed  by Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu set for release in December.

Out on a scouting mission for a small party of trappers working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass comes upon the grizzly and is horribly mauled. Nearly dead from his wounds and certainly unable to go on, he is left in the care of two of the party—a young boy, Jim Bridger and a scheming malcontent, John Fitzgerald—presumably to wait for his inevitable death and then bury him. When a band of hostile Indians appears close by, Fitzgerald and Bridger run off and leave Glass on his own. Almost more importantly, they steal his rifle, his knife and everything else he has that might be useful in the dangerous wild. After all, they caviled he was as good as dead already.

Turns out it takes more than a bear to send Glass to meet his maker, and the wounded man sets out to crawl his way through hundreds of miles of wilderness seeking help and eventually revenge on the men who abandoned him. It is an epic tale of mythic proportions, a testament to one man’s courage and indomitable will, and much of it is based on fact.

 Punke’s narrative is spare, but he does manage to include some vivid pictures of what life must have been like for the trappers and traders living in the undeveloped territory. We learn how to make a variety of traps for small animals. We learn what the best tidbits of the buffalo are, as well as a little bit about butchering and building fires. We learn how to make bullboats out of buffalo skins. It is the kind of validating information that make incidents like his description of the wounded, weaponless Glass fighting off a wolf pack over the remains of a buffalo calf believable. Frontiersmen needed to depend upon themselves. Those that depended on others didn’t always last very long.

Hugh Glass is a name that belongs with the likes of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett, and if Punke’s account doesn’t put him in that pantheon, perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio and Iñárritu may do the job.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Music Review: Josh Nelson - "Exploring Mars"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Pianist, composer Josh Nelson’s follow-up to his 2011 science fiction inspired album Discoveries, Exploring Mars, delivers everything you would expect from an album with that title. Taking inspiration from actual science as well as science fiction, Nelson takes the listener along on a journey of musical exploration of variations on his Martian theme. There are tracks devoted to the exploratory rovers. There are tracks devoted to Martian geography.  There are tracks devoted to earlier imaginative explorations in music and literature.

He opens the 10-track set with “Bradbury’s Spirit,” a composition that in a real sense bridges the scientific and the imaginative. Over an understated evocative waltz, Nelson reads a passage from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a passage that describes a mystifying musical performance and its effects. It is a quite effective prelude to the album’s programmatic concept combining Spirit and Bradbury.

“Sojourner” follows featuring guitarist Larry Koonse and Nelson on piano as it like its namesake takes its exploratory journey. Koonse and his solo guitar handle the first of the geographically inspired pieces, “Memnonia Quadrangle,” leading to a haunting ballad, “How You Loved Me On Mars” with a pure and sensitive vocal interpretation from Kathleen Grace. Larry Goldings adds B3 accompaniment.

“Opportunity” is an otherworldly up-tempo piece which gets some exotically strange sounds from Nelson on the Nord Electro 3. Drummer Dan Schnelle takes over for a percussive rhapsody in “Solis Lacus, The Eye of Mars.” This leads to “Mars, The Bringer of War,” the one piece on the album not composed by Nelson. Instead it is his adaptation of the first movement of Gustave Holst’s The Planets for the piano creating what he calls an arrangement “sort of like a Bill Evans Conversations with Myself approach to overdubbing.” Interestingly, Larry Goldings in the liner notes uses the phrase “converse with himself” to describe Nelson’s work on “Opportunity” trading solos on the piano and synthesizer as well.

“Curiosity” and “Syrtis Major, The Hourglass Sea” highlight the EVI (the Electro Valve Instrument), which like the Nord gives the pieces that spacey other worldly sound. For those of you like me unfamiliar with the EVI an interesting explanation of how the instrument is played and its range is available from John Swana on YouTube. The set closes with a reprisal of “Spirit,” this time without the spoken word passage, focusing attention on the music where indeed it belongs.

For the timid souls among us unlikely to be exploring anything at all, let alone Mars, Josh Nelson’s Exploring Mars offers a welcome taste of what we’re missing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Music Review: Branford Marsalis - "In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral"

This article was first published at Blogcritics

A solo saxophone recital may not be the typical jazz lover’s idea of a good time, but if it is Branford Marsalis playing that saxophone, minds may well need to be changed. In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral, the album released last October, has the virtuoso taking center stage at the venerable scene of the famed Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts for his debut as a solo artist.

Certainly one expects technical perfection, and Marsalis delivers. But technical perfection alone may not be all that satisfying. Technical perfection is often mechanical and uninspired. Playing a lot of notes at warp speed will not always cut it. There must be more; there must be creativity in the moment. There must be an emotional investment by the artist. Marsalis understands what he needs to do and clearly he is up to the task.

Creativity in the moment is featured in four improvisations, the third of which has the artist working with a siren that happens by during the performance. Each of the four gives Marsalis a chance to show his different sides—melodic, meditative and technically proficient. He can evoke laughter in the audience with a witty programmatic moment in his own composition, “The Moment I Recall Your Face;” he can turn to a more abstract construct in his translation of the first movement of C. P. E. Bach’s Sonata in A Minor for Oboe Solo to the tenor sax. He can even take the abstraction up a level with his version of Ryo Noda’s “MAI. Op. 7.”

In many respects, for me at least, he is at his best with his “Blues For One,” a rousing blues that concludes the concert, before he comes back for an unplanned encore, which, hard to believe, is the theme from the old Carol Burnet TV show, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” a theme he ends with a squawk and a whimper. Other highlights are the set opener, a soprano sax take on sax master Steve Lacy’s “Who Needs It,” and an exciting version of the classic “Stardust.”

Perhaps the depth of Marsalis’s emotional investment in measured in an anecdote relayed in Rafi Zabor’s liner notes. Originally Marsalis had planned to play two classics—“Stardust” and “Body and Soul.” It was only when he heard recording of the concert played back, that he realized that instead of the “Body and Soul,” he had played the Hoagy Carmichael piece twice. We only get it once on the album, and we can only lament the loss of his “Body and Soul.”