Friday, August 13, 2010

Jim Rotondi - 1000 Rainbows (Positone)

Contextual questions of excessive repertory fealty are largely moot in the music of Jim Rotondi. A trumpeter who’s canny style blends Hubbard-like velocity and clarity with a persuasive lyricism, his fixation on a stripes of hardbop steeped in 60s Blue Note decorum is hardly worth getting bent about, though there are those who would likely fault him for it just the same. This set couples his lubricious brass with Joe Locke’s vibes and a standard rhythm section for a nine-song program that moves along at a brisk and mannered clip from the opening incisiveness of “Bizzaro World” through the lovely tone poem closer “Not Like This”.

Locke is a veteran player versed in a set of antecedents similar to those favored by his employer. He’s also imbued with a comparable instrumental command that engages multiple mallets in the crafting of complex melodic leads. He and Rotondi make for sharply cast team in the company of pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Bill Stewart, all of whom unflappably fulfill their respective roles. Mori and Stewart don’t get much in the way of solo space, but each man still makes his presence known through cogent and creative support.

The set list combines a handful of originals with a small clutch of tunes culled from popular songbooks. Buddy Montgomery is the source of the title piece, a lush ballad piece bracketed by soothing ensemble statements. Lennon and McCartney’s “We Can Work it Out” is thankfully denuded of most of its pop baggage, the unison theme working surprisingly well as a blowing vehicle for the two principals. It’s a very pleasant and well-parceled program, one filled with numerous platforms for the leader and Locke to strut their chops. Again, the collaborative catalogs of Hubbard and Hutcherson aren’t too far out of mind when listening to tunes like “Gravitude” and “One for Felix”. That’s hardly a trait worth a grimace or a grouse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Schlippenbach Trio - Bauhaus Dessau (Intakt)

The Schlippenbach Trio’s latest release is an album couched in celebratory anniversaries: the ensembles 40th coupled to their chosen venue’s 90th. Recorded at the vaunted German playhouse in the fall of last year it recalls their last Intakt outing in that saxophonist Evan Parker leaves his straight horn capped and cased. The resulting focus on tenor is something of a treat though it also means that his circular breathing feats of stamina and precision play out with comparative brevity and tempered speed on the larger horn. Rather than a detriment, it makes for a fascinating contrast. The tenor-centric nature of the set also precipitates the greater presence of jazz elements in his playing as interplay that ensues.

For their parts, pianist Schlippenbach and drummer Paul Lovens sidle back into their customary positions on bench and stool, respectively. The three players subscribe to a framework familiar from countless past concerts with a lengthy sectional piece followed by two shorter encores. At this point in their venerated partnership the thrills come through discovering how they shave away the weight of precedence and keep the long-standing shared vernacular free of hindering predictability. One thing remains certain, the tones and structures hatched upon are well enough removed from the litanies loosed on storied conclaves prior.

Play-by-play hardly seems prudent as the three hit their reliable strides and pacing, peeling off into duos and solos along with ensemble statements that fluctuate between heated and measured. Parker spools out some lushly nuanced melodic playing, particularly on the pair of encores, and it’s a vector buttressed by his partners from their own corners of the stage. Lovens manages his hat trick of assembling asymmetry, color and momentum without a sacrifice to any constituency. Schlippenbach scurries adroitly up and down his keyboard, expertly working the pedals for added gravitas while keeping a variable bead on his colleagues’ compass points. In sum it’s that rare breed of professional improvised performance, one that keenly calibrates fervor with skill.

The Schlippenbach Trio’s last Bauhaus hit was 28 years ago, a time lapse all but erased by the fresh scattershot of musical manna imbedded in the venue’s vaulted architecture this second go round.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stephen Gauci/ Kris Davis/ Michael Bisio - SKM (Clean Feed)

Operating under the ostensible leadership of saxophonist Stephen Gauci, but still very much an ensemble affair, versatility factors prominently on this straightforward trio set. Gauci and bassist Michael Bisio are well-established colleagues, their associations formed in the last decade on a number of projects for CIMP. Canadian pianist Kris Davis moves in similar circles having worked with New York notables like Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey. Their rapport manifests right away, stressing spontaneity rather than any predictable path with their instrumentation. It’s a “down to brass tacks” approach echoed in a simple initials-as-album title summary.

All but one of the program’s eight pieces is collectively composed. Only “Now” sources from Bisio’s pen, a solo feature for his signature emery board arco bass. Gauci sits out the opening minutes of “The End Must Always Come” setting a precedent that shapes the other tracks in the set. Sharply drawn duos and solos thread through various pieces with Davis and Bisio frequently pairing off for tightly braided interplay. The bassist is no stranger to pared down settings in the company of a piano and that familiarity serves him well here.

Davis responds in kind though repetitive aspects of her playing grate on occasion. In the closing minutes of the aforementioned opener she locks on an ostinato pattern wears it down to a nub as Gauci flutters in circles around her. It’s an action wrought with intent, but one that ends up sounding overwrought. “Something From Nothing” takes the tactic to an even greater extreme, barely equating with its title as the three musicians built a constrictive repeating weave from the barest of rhythmic materials. It’s an initially interesting exercise in self-imposed group parameters that ultimately feels overly hermetic.

Other pieces like the comparatively aerated Gauci/Davis duo “Groovin’ for the Hell of It” fare better in speaking to the trio’s strengths. Davis’ dusky and staggered chords have a Bley-like luster to them and Gauci’s fastidious feather-duster tone plies in the service of suitably diagonal phrasing. Those comparisons bring immediately to mind the classic Giuffre trio, but it’s really just a surface point of comparison. Balancing liberating extemporaneousness within the context of carefully considered structures these three players arrive at a music that both invites and largely withstands close scrutiny.

ROW: Stan Getz - Nobody Else But Me (Verve)

The Getz/Gary Burton nexus was a relatively brief occurrence and one comprised almost completely of concert dates. This ‘lost’ session constitutes their only studio meeting in a pianoless setting and it’s quite the archival find. Bassist Gene Cherico and drummer Joe Hunt complete the ensemble in yeoman fashion, but it’s Burton who truly brings out a singular side of Getz, particularly on two originals “6-Nix-Quix-Flix” and “Out of Focus”. The vibraphonist’s veiled anecdotes hint at predictable frictions with his temperamental employer and the Bossa Nova strains that were the tenorist’s then-bread-and-butter infiltrate the rhythmic arrangements for ballad numbers like “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Waltz for a Lovely Wife”, but there are shades of modal freedom audible in the principals’ exchanges as well. Vintage Van Gelder sound gives the instruments a greater clarity and balance than what they would encounter on air shots and audience recordings. Hard to find in these days of the waning compact disc, this set still stands out in Getz’s voluminous discography as a memorable departure from the norm.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Greg Lewis - Organ Monk (self-released)

Don’t let the barefaced cover art on this one act as a disqualifier before disc meets laser. Organist Greg Lewis might be a bit lead-handed with his monastic imagery, but his work on the B-3 is brimming with shades and subtlety. It certainly helps that the side-persons he’s chosen for the date include the redoubtable Cindy Blackman and a new name to me, Ron Jackson, on guitar. All but one of the disc’s fifteen tracks come from the songbook of Thelonious, a brave move on Lewis’ part to begin with given the preponderance of tributes past and present to the inestimable hat-and-bearded composer.

Lewis hardly seems stymied by the challenge inherent in saying something new with the time-tested material. In fact he goes it better by not shying away from the humorous and downright weird. His command of his console is startling complete, beginning with a burning take on “Trinkle Tinkle” where he plies the spiral staircase melody without missing a beat. The corkscrew freefall of “Four In One” falls similarly in line under Lewis’ nimble digits. Elsewhere on “Criss Cross” he combines the floating atmospherics of Korla Pandit and Sun Ra as Blackman builds tension and release accents for a spate of bracing contrasts. “Boo’s Birthday” contains a swirling church-inflected prelude before the trio states the theme proper.

Lewis’ has obviously internalized the masters of pedal-built organ bass from Smith on down through Holmes. His corpulent patterns balance tonal weight with adroit articulation as during the frothy give and take with Blackman on “Played Twice”. Jackson shifts between thick bacon-cut comping and cleaner single note solos. In the latter capacity he sometimes almost sounds like an extension of Lewis’ keys so close and custom-calibrated are his chord voicings. His solos are fewer in frequency than those of his employer, but he makes them count, as does Blackman most commonly within the context of drum breaks.

A word also seems warranted regarding the disc’s artwork, which includes a stylized tray card photo of a shirtless Lewis seated, his nude wife straddling him as their infant soon coos nearby from a baby rocker. It’s a striking image and one initially incongruous with the music. Lewis’ visuals may err on the obvious, but his take on Monk’s music preserves that reservoir of spontaneity so often depleted from the tunes in the hands’ of other interpreters. This is certainly a set to audition for jaded listeners who’ve all but given up on the organ’s application as a vehicle for singular expression.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It was 39 years ago today...

Stuck at the day gig today despite the arrival of a birthday. Thought I’d give myself a consolation present just the same by skipping a Monday review. Regularly scheduled programming to resume tomorrow. In the meantime, please dig this if you haven’t already: Jackie McLean on Mars

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dick Oatts - Two Hearts (Steeplechase)

Ballad projects can be dangerous prospects for the sentiment-sensitive saxophonist. Dip too deep into the romance bag and the results run a strong risk of coming across as treacly or trite. Constrict the emotive spigot and the outcome can be construable as bland or aloof. Midwestern mainstay Dick Oatts is well-acquainted with negotiating such obstacles of temperament over a professional career that spans nearly four decades. Counting sideman and jam session appearances this is his nineteenth title for Steeplechase though it dates back to January of 2009. Pianist Michael Weiss, bassist Ugonnna Okegwo and drummer Rodney Green are regular Oatts confreres. Bassist David Wong pinch hits for Okegwo on three pieces without upsetting the programmatic flow.

The ten tune set is an assemblage of notable standards, all of which have revolved through the Oatts playbook at one time or another. It’s testament to Oatt’s improvisatory powers that such a program can still yield green pastures for his horn. A medium-slow tempo sortie through “If I Should Loose You” starts things off in relatively sedate fashion with the rhythm section offering up a warm accompaniment the leader’s ranging alto. Slower pieces actually offer more succulent fruits starting with the lilting interpretation “We’ll Be Together Again”. Oatts sounds even more inspired on Ellington’s “Come Sunday”, his by turns plush and piquant tonal shifts accentuating the aged standard’s beatific theme. Weiss works well as frequent foil, his deft chordal work aligning with the steady throb of Okegwo and the skeletal rhythms of Green.

Raising the tempo a couple ticks, “Yesterdays” brings a dark edge of Weiss’ rolling, pedal-weighted momentum and some acrobatic emoting by the leader. The mood shift proves short-lived thanks to the soothing trifecta of “My Foolish Heart”, “Darn That Dream” and “Angel Eyes”. Echoing the intimation of its concluding foray through “Hello Young Lovers”, this is an album to savor in the company of a spouse or lover, snifter of top-shelf cognac and comfortable couch at the ready to see what develops.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Prince Lasha - Insight (Dusty Groove/CBS UK)

Flirtations with major labels are an infrequent occurrence for most free jazz musicians. For Prince Lasha the call came during a European sojourn in the mid-60s. Lasha assembled a crew of ten musicians in a UK studio, mixing and matching them on a standards-weighted program of six tunes. Fielding plastic alto like his old pal Ornette along with wooden flute he tailored each to his designs and came up with an album that still stands out in discography checkered by lengthy lapses in recording. David Snell’s guitar-like harp and the use of two bassists in tandem along with a modest brass section of trumpet and trombone pulls the instrumentation out of the quotidian. Les Tompkins liners, reproduced in the booklet, give detailed play-by-play as well as the basic particulars behind the session’s inception. Lifted from a pristine vinyl copy, the fidelity is clean and crisp.

Dusty Groove’s decision to dust off the session and reissue it on their cd boutique label makes perfect sense. The platter is right in line with the rare but righteous criteria that the other discs in the catalog subscribe to. Lasha’s take on the standards leans heavily to the “inside”, but he still injects passages of New Thing brio and fire, especially on the dedicatory original “Impressions of Eric Dolphy” with a spate of intervallic chirrups. British pianist Stan Tracey and fellow expatriate Joe Oliver raise the bar a notch, the latter man bringing playful Monkisms to his work on the riff-driven opener “Nuttin’ Out Jones” and elsewhere. Of the standards, “Everything Happens to Me” is the standout and a piece that prognosticates some of the travails Lasha had ahead of him in the coming decades. “Body and Soul”, rendered on lilting flute, is a close second with solid supporting work from the brass.

As is so often the case in major label meets outre artist, the CBS session ended up a one-shot and Lasha once again slid into obscurity in its wake. Numerous ups and downs followed in subsequent years before he found a partial late-career renaissance on the CIMP imprint in the company of Odean Pope. The renascence proved short-lived with his passing in December of 2008. This classic set is something a lost-and-found gem and a true pleasure from start to finish. As strong as his early Firebirds sets with Sonny Simmons for Contemporary are, in terms of instrumental variety and “outside-turns-inside” appeal this formerly hen’s-teeth rare platter just might have the appreciable edge.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Aram Shelton Quartet - These Times (Single Speed)

Pressed on Aram Shelton’s own imprint, this modest album is a logical minor variation on the reedist’s long-standing partnership with saxophonist Keefe Jackson in the Fast Citizens, a collective that’s recorded twice for Delmark. Both horn players have strong ties to the Chicago creative pool that is now several iterations onward from the Vandermark-led vanguard of a decade earlier. The variant in this case is drummer Marc Riordan, a new recruit who fits with the extant ensemble like a moistened reed in mouthpiece.

With Shelton’s name on the masthead four of the six compositions naturally come from his quill. Of the remaining two in the set, Jackson and bassist Anton Hatwich take one apiece. There’s a similar equilibrium regarding Shelton’s choice of reeds as the alto pieces serve as bread slices to the clarinet cold cuts in the programmatic sandwich. He name-drops Ornette, Johns Tchicai and Carter as muses and the pieces loosely reference freebop frameworks established by those storied progenitors in using brisk pretzel-patterned themes as sources for collective improvisation.

At this point Shelton and Jackson share a rapport that makes sessions like this one sound somewhat effortless even though the collaborative energy spent to get there was obviously deep and rewarding. On the opening title piece, the pair negotiates a see-sawing unison theme before dropping out and leaving Riordan’s brushes front and center. Shelton bats first with a solo steeped in jittery intervallics followed by Jackson in similar form before a tandem marked by lean vertical riffing by the former and blustery forward momentum by the latter.

On the Jackson-scripted “Rings”, Shelton’s mercurial clarinet makes for an even sharper tonal contrast to the composer’s tenor and the riff-lead roles reverse. Bass and drums buttress and challenge from their flanking positions, drawing respective lines in bold primary colors. Hatwich’s “Relief” moves from a feature for Riordan to overlapping legato lines from the saxophones that ramp in density and intensity before a surprisingly sedate and lyrical coda. Shelton’s “Rise and Set” reflects its title galvanizing horn fisticuffs giving way to bass and drums interludes and onward to a cathartic release.

At just over 37-minutes it’s a relatively short set, but that built-in brevity isn’t a minus given how well everything holds together. Considering that other titles on Shelton’s young label have lapsed out of print this isn’t one for interested parties to sleep on.

ROW: Raymond Scott Quintette - Microphone Music (Basta)

How to effectively summarize Raymond Scott? Studio recording wizard, futurist swing composer/pianist, draconian band leader, early electronicist pioneer- all are appellations rightly attached to his name. This double-disc collection of choice air shots and rehearsals covers nearly every major base of his early songbook. Humorous non-sequiturs and playful mash-ups are regular facets of both song titles and charts, among them such rambunctious ditties as “Yesterday’s Ice Cubes”, “Harlem Hillbilly”, “Hypnotist in Hawaii” and “The Girl with the Light Blue Hair”. Scott could rival Spike Jones in terms of frenetic slapstick humor and split-second collaging of instruments would have a far flung influence on bands like the Grand Ole Opry’s Hoosier Hot Shots and cartoon composer Carl Stalling who lifted various Scott melodies for his work with Warner Brothers. Unlike the often anarchic Jones, there was always a palpable discipline balancing the arch comedy in his creations and his band, a six-piece outfitted christened the Quintette comprised crack studio musicians. The arguable ace Scott’s deck was percussionist Johnny Williams (father to the film composer of the same name) whose kit was festooned with all sorts of peripheral devices from wood-blocks to tympani to finger cymbals. Based on his eclectic and driving work on these numbers rivals Sonny Greer and Cie Frazier in the category of crafting convincing "jungle" rhythms. Working with just three horns Scott created the illusion of an orchestra, one hopped up on Mexican jumping beans and spiked sarsaparilla. Folks coming to this stuff fresh are in for an extended treat and even those who’ve heard the sides a dozen times are still all but sure to uncover something new with each encounter.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


A link to the Smalls Jazz Archive has been up for some time here, but as with most things, time for delving into the site’s many musical wonders remains a luxury I’m not often able to enjoy. Cruising by there yesterday I noticed the place has grown substantially since my last visit. Specifically, there’s a huge archive of tenorist Ned Goold’s performances, the bulk of them with his working trio with bassist Jamale Davis and son Charles on drums. Despite a continuing association and presumably lucrative gigs with Harry Connick, Jr., Goold’s been rather ill-served on record to date and this trove effectively multiplies his available music by four. He’s also a kindred spirit with MoaSH staple Stephen Riley, evincing a highly personal system of harmonic improvisation and a tone that pulls from the lesser tapped in of the spectrum previously occupied by cats like Gonsalves, Rouse and Marsh.

In addition to the plentiful sounds there’s the cool & colorful reel-to-reel animation that plays while the sets stream. The only downside is an absence of track lists and the occasionally erroneous personnel listings, but these are paltry quibbles considering the bounty on offer gratis. The office soundtrack @ my day gig just got a whole lot more interesting…

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mike Mainieri - Crescent (NYC)

Trane tributes remain a reliable if sometimes rote jazz tributary. Vibraphonist Mike Mainieri seems to recognize their resilient ubiquity on this outing, tweaking the formula in a number of intriguing ways and coming up with a program both familiar and singular in the execution. The success is due in no small part to his sidemen, both of whom easily sidestep the strictures of that largely outmoded signifier. Altoist Charlie Mariano was at the end of a long and fulfilling road when the session was waxed in 2005, but his impending demise is only fleetingly apparent in his playing which retains a plangent edge and tart vibrato while sustaining an unerring underlying swing even in the seldom moments when he overreaches.

The trio session grew naturally out of a string of prior duo performances with rehearsals and arrangements foresworn in favor of spontaneous play. Mainieri wisely added bassist Dieter Ilg, a colleague of Mariano’s, to the mix as an anchor and fulcrum and his supple bass lines are equally accomplished in supportive and lead roles. Trane originals alternate with a handful of standards that were regular residents of his stage and session songbook. The three men make the most of the inherent space and harmonic density of the tunes. The rendering of “Giant Steps” on the second disc is a capsule of this sort of versatility with Ilg taking the lead at the onset, obliquely sketching the cascading theme with vigorous string stops before Mainieri’s mallets flesh it further in a stream of luminous clusters. Mariano’s recessed riffing expands into an ensemble passage where Ilg switches to a sturdy Latin bounce.

Stacked against the handful of now-hoary standards, the Coltrane pieces like “Mr. Syms” fare better, but representatives of the former camp still contain surprises. Ilg brings an ample amount of funk to the “I Love You” without upsetting the balladic mood, gently goosing Mariano into some spirited syncopations of his own that recall an Art Pepper-like insouciance. “Bye Bye Blackbird” opens with several choruses of jaunty dialogue between vibes and alto, Ilg sitting on the sideline before entering with a supple walking line. “Body and Soul” also gets a coat of fresh paint thanks to Mainieri’s shimmering unaccompanied preface and the closing take on the national anthem miraculously manages to avoid schmaltz while remaining mellifluous.

Mainieri’s spent much of his career in fusion settings most often with his own outfit Steps Ahead. Those experiences translate to his expert use of his instrument’s pedals and motor in constructing colors and textures. This set is a welcome change of scenery for his mallets and proof that his talents are just as applicable to pared down settings. It’s certainly made me want to check out more of his earlier work while using Crescent as a handy yardstick.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July's Blue Hole

Summer’s had it’s sultry way with me and July is now a wash. Apologies to those who’ve stopped by in the last month only to find stasis and silence on the site page. Various situations conspired against my regular maintenance of this small house including a tornado’s brush with my own actual residence. The death of Harvey Pekar, a much-needed trip to Duluth and points north, and a nurse’s strike narrowly averted at my day gig were just some of the other events that occupied my thoughts and time at the expense of daily updates here. What to do with the “blue hole” of content that formed in the interim?

It may seem a cheat, especially given the early pledge of a new review per weekday that started this place, but I’ve got no shortage of previously published reviews from which to cherry-pick. So, slapping palm to forehead, it occurred to me that a reprinting of certain said pieces might be just the proper fix. July’s now filled with several dozen of these heirlooms documenting recordings of the past few years and prior that continue to strike my fancy. Please take the time to peruse them if you have the inclination. New content renews tomorrow with the chronic case of summer writing hiccups hopefully behind me. Thanks again for your patience and continued patronage. And thanks to the artists and labels for the music without which this place would not exist.