In which the beleaguered reviewer attempts to make some headway into the mounds of CDs seeking reviews accumulating daily by providing quick hits on a few recordings at a time.
Howard Levy - "Tonight and Tomorrow"
Howard Levy is of course known worldwide as the musician who revolutionized the diatonic harmonica - his ability to bend notes to reach the missing notes required to play jazz took the instrument to a whole new and higher level. Probably most famous through his work with newgrass banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck (with whom he won a Grammy), Levy has performed with a wide variety of artists across many musical spectrums from folk and rock to world music and more. Less well known, perhaps, except to fans of Chicago's "Chevere" Latin Jazz ensemble (of which he is the musical director) is that Levy is an excellent pianist as well. On the recently released Tonight and Tomorrow, Levy takes his opportunity to shine on both instruments, backed by the pre-eminent Chicago artists Larry Gray on bass, and Ernie Adams on drums.
The music (all written by Levy) runs across many of the styles and influences Levy has written in over the years from funk ("Flunky Jazz"), blues and straight-ahead jazz ("Song for Susan") to Latin ("Slanted Samba") and even some improvisation. His McCoy Tyner-like piano work on the compelling "Howard's F# Blues" that opens the album announces that he is a force to be reckoned with on the keys. Of course, the harp work is stellar - breathtaking at times (listen to him bend the note upward like he is bending a guitar string on his solo on "Chorinho). Gray and Adams, besides creating the stellar support they are known for are given opportunities to take center stage and of course come through with flying colors. Gray is one of the most melodic and tasteful bass players in the business, while Adams may be the busiest and most in-demand drummer in town, and the recording lovingly captures every nuance clearly. Levy himself is playing better than ever, and on Tonight and Tomorrow, Levy and co-producer Nick Eipers have recorded one of Chicago's most important jazz artists in the prime of his career.
Chris Greene Quartet - "Merge"
(Single Malt Recordings)
The Chris Greene Quartet's third CD, Merge is this groups best yet, and finds the ensemble benefitting from their long (in jazz terms) association. In the four years they have been together, Greene and band have played extensively around Chicagoland and honing their craft by performing for various audiences. This experience has allowed them to determine what works best and what doesn't, and this knowledge has been invaluable in their growth as evidenced on Merge. Not that the group plays it safe: the risk-taking is still a huge part of their approach, but the confidence and cohesion just gets better every time out. The creativity and daring that led the group to merge Hank Williams and Sting tunes with jazz in the past is thankfully still present - this time they take on Madonna ("Borderline") and the Black Eyed Peas ("Let's Get it Started") with truly interesting and fun arrangements. Two well-chosen standards: Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" and Johnny Green's "Out of Nowhere" are joined on this recording by some of the best originals yet from Greene and keyboardist Damian Espinosa. Greene's "Good Riddance" - which opens the album is perhaps the most satisfying number yet from the young artist, while "You'll Thank Me Later," "M. Tati" and "Coffee 'n' Scotch" comprise his strongest statement yet as a composer. Meanwhile, Espinosa adds the wonderful "In Confidence," which allows Greene to shine on soprano sax. One hopes to hear more songwriting in the future from this talented player. As "Borderline" ends this album with a smile, the listeners' appreciation of Greene's merger of fun and good times with serious rock-solid playing and band interaction will only be enhanced.
Miroslav Vitous Group with Michel Portal - "Remembering Weather Report"
Czech-born bass virtuoso Miroslav Vitous, co-founded the legendary fusion group Weather Report and was one of its leaders until disagreements with keyboardist Joe Zawinul over the direction of the music, led to his being replaced by Alphonso Johnson. While he was a member, Weather Report was more a free jazz ensemble. On this effort, the bassist does not revisit the group's music, but rather looks back at the original musical ideas that existed at the beginning of the group and the results are pleasing indeed. On the opening "Variations on Wayne Shorter," Gerald Cleaver drums ferociously, while the classically-trained Vitous both bows his bass and plucks it masterfully. Trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti and saxophonist reference the lines from Shorter's "Nefertiti" as basis for exploration. Ornette Coleman's highly-influential "Lonely Woman" is given a haunting rendition, while Zawinul himself is paid tribute to on Vitous' "Semina" - which looks back fondly at the keyboardist's earlier efforts before he became enamored with funk and a more constrained rhythm section. This stunning composition - a suite in three parts - features some of the most incredible bowed bass you will ever hear during the first section. "Surfing with Michael" is a remarkable conversational duet with Vitous and French saxophonist Michel Portal, while the incredible "When Dvorak Meets Miles" merges the Eastern European musical tradition with African-American jazz, and "Blues Report" lives up to its name - using the blues to launch group improvisation. Although not electronic like early Weather Report, this recording certainly takes the spirit that helped determine their initial directions (conversations between players an equality between the lead and rhythm instruments), while taking these ideas in new directions.
Chris Potter, Steve Wilson, Terrell Stafford, Keith Javors, Delbert Felix, John Davis - "Coming Together"
In 2005, promising young saxophonist Brendan Romaneck was 24, with a bright future ahead of him, when he was suddenly struck and killed by a car less than two months before the scheduled recording of his debut album to be titled Coming Together. His parents and the musicians Romaneck had selected decided to go ahead with the recording as a tribute. The original musicians selected by Brendan for the recording: trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Dr. Keith Javors, bassist Delbert Felix and drummer John Davis were joined by two of the top names in the saxophone ranks: Chris Potter and Steve Wilson - who were recruited by Javors to play the saxophone parts. The songs on this record were recorded in two parts - a quartet session with Potter and a quintet session with Wilson and Sanford, who said the experience was "one of the most emotional dates" he had ever done.
Romaneck was taught and mentored by Javors and the legendary Bunky Green and it is a credit to the young composer and his teachers that his original songs more than hold their own with the three covers ("My Shining Hour," "Nancy With the Laughing Face," and "Killing Me Softly With His Song"). "Dream Behind the Winter" is a gorgeous and mature piece, while "Full Moon" shows that the young man had a way with a ballad as well. The wickedly twisted "3 Steps Ahead of the Spider" is a highlight and shows what interesting directions this young man would more than likely be taking had he lived. The gospel-tinged "You'll Never Know" concludes the first half (with Potter), while the trumpet/alto front line of Stafford and Wilson tear up the tasty hard-bopping title track, as well as the album-ending "11-02." The Wayne Shorter-inspired "Minion" is another highlight with great use of space. Throughout, the performances of the players involved are exceptional, and the listener can tell that it meant a great deal to be involved in creating this special project. An emotional recording of coming together and making music in the spirit of remembrance and the mixed joy and sadness for a life cut short too soon, but also celebrated and treasured for what was accomplished in a brief lifetime.
Petra van Nuis & Andy Brown - "Far Away Places"
(String Damper Records)
Vocalist Petra van Nuis and her husband, guitarist Andy Brown have released their new CD - Far Away Places a sensitive duet recording with just the two in an intimate setting, and it is a sparkling gem. Entering this duos' world is like stepping into a time machine and revisiting an era when the song was the thing and Coltrane-like deconstruction was just a glimmer in your daddy's eye. The songs range from beloved standards: "Cottage for Sale" "From this Moment On," "Let's Do It," "How Little We Know," "Invitation," "Caravan," "Bim Bom," "With a Song in My Heart" to lesser known pieces like the jaunty "Destination Moon," "Born to Play the Blues," "Me, Myself and I" and the stunning title track. This world of innocence, romance and peaceful melodies is carried by van Nuis' honeyed voice and Brown's exceptional old-school guitar support (who needs a rhythm section? - check out his bass lines on Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" - there are bass players who would kill to play that well). The partner's subtle interplay on Sammy Cahn & Nicolas Brodszky's "I'll Never Stop Loving You" is another delicious highlight. While most modern singers will cover a song or two from the golden age - usually jazzing it up with rock and roll and disco beats, screaming guitar solos and incessant vocal somersaults, van Nuis and Brown have found a niche in presenting the songs of the bygone eras straight and allowing the melodies to hang relatively unadorned. The quaint and clean presentation is utterly charming: in this case it is hip to be square.
Miguel de Leon - "Postcards from Rio"
Chicago-based singer Miguel de Leon says that while growing up in a Mexican-American home, he was exposed not only to Mexican artists and mariachi bands, but also to the Brazilian sounds from groups like Sergio Mendes' Brazil ' 66. This love of the Brazilian music led him to travel to Brazil and to incorporate Brazilian songs into his musical performances. Like his West Coast counterpart, Anna Estrada, de Leon sings in Spanish, English and Portuguese - saying his goal is to "use his gift of music as a means to bridge the gap" between different cultures and "bring people together." Accompanied by a set of lovely actual postcards from Rio inside, de Leon presents pleasurable versions of songs from Brazil, including usual offerings "Corcovado," "Garota de Ipanema" joined by lesser-known tributes to the lovely Brazilian city. Recorded in Rio with "Samba de Orly" pairs de Leon's addictive voice with Serginho Trombone's (great name, eh) trombone, while "Bom Dia Rio" features Daniel Santiago's nylon-string guitar and NYC/Rio pianist/arranger David Feldman's airy piano. Drummer Erivelton Silva is a marvel of Brazilian rhythms, while percussionist Sidinho Moreira and tasteful bassist Alberto Continentino rounds out the core group. Strangely, the saxophone and flute are uncredited. This talented group of Brazilian players give an air of authenticity to the recording. Several of these tracks are showing up on Latin radio across the country and it is easy to see why. Songs like "Ela e Carioca," "Only a Dream in Rio," "Copacabana" and "Cidade Maravihosa" (featuring singer Fatima Regina) float into the eardrums like gentle waves on the beach. Meanwhile, the relaxed feel of these songs may just do its part in reducing health care costs in the U.S. by lowering everybody's stress levels.
Miguel de Leon appears at Morseland on January 17, 2010.
Spare Parts - "Trio"
Hold on to your hat when you put this one on your CD player. Chicago's Spare Partshave a "no-holds-barred/everything-including-the-kitchen sink" approach to their energetic musical attack. On Trio this trio - consisting of Kevin Kozol on several keyboards, Colin Scott on electric bass and Mike Bruno on drums and percussion - concoct a free-wheeling fireworks display of enjoyable playing and songwriting for the benefit of the listener and/or dancer. These memorable tunes are at times funky ("Meteorite," "Home Run Incident," "Police Report," "The Junction," "Brainwreck"), at times progressive fusion "Trilogy Parts I-III," "Japanese Rock Song," "Earland") with forays into pop ("Hello Dear," "Absynth") and even smooth space lounge ("The Last Straw," "Water Music") - often combining disparate elements within the songs themselves. The musicianship is first rate - with Scott a "Fender-Funkmeister," Bruno driving the band like it is a well-tuned Bugatti and Kozol supplying cascades of keyboard washes and sounds ranging from orgasmic organs and acoustic piano to electric pianos and chewy synth leads. A fun album that will get the limbs moving all akimbo - they must be killer live.
Spare Parts appears free at Alive One in Lincoln Park (2683 N. Halsted) on December 3rd and 10th.
Jared Gold - "Supersonic"
The B-3 is the thing here with very few frills. A primarily pretty traditional organ trio outing from Jared Gold, backed by guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer McClenty Hunter, "Supersonic" is an album with some solid playing and interesting song choices. John Sebastian's TV theme "Welcome Back" opens and proves a surprisingly good tune in Gold's hands. Having just come through the "Jersey Boys" experience, I already had "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" playing through my head, and this fine version (with Cherry taking the bluesy lead) set me back a few more weeks in trying to remove this catchy number from my internal loop. All three members are estimable players, with Gold an expert of all the nuances, swells, squawks and trills that the organ has to offer. On the Gold original "Times Are Hard on the Boulevard," he stretches out a bit more into some savory modern funk, while the quirky (and somewhat obligatory) Beatles cover ("In My LIfe") continues the fun. The manic "Battle of Tokorazawa" is a highlight, while I also throughly enjoyed the band's take on the standard "Angel Eyes." An entertaining recording from a promising young artist and one that fans of organ trios should enjoy.
Ike Sturm - "Jazz Mass"
The blending of Western European harmony as emphasized by the Christian church with African American rhythms and "blue" notes created the music we know and love as jazz. However, the alliance between the cathedral and the juke joint has been an uneasy one. Few true religious jazz works have been composed, although those that have been created have been written by giants such as Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Bassist Ike Sturm is the music director for Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan - a church long known for its support of jazz music. He recently was commissioned by the church to compose a Jazz Mass for a superb15-voice choir (including Wisconsin's own Janet Planet), string orchestra and jazz septet. The result is this stunning work.
While not myself a member of a Catholic Church, I have attended services and have been impressed with the power imparted by the shimmering choral presentations that have endured for centuries. Sturm retains this as a basis (admittedly, I am not sure how closely this follows an actual mass format), while bringing the jazz element into bear in a seamless manner. Just as a few examples, "Gloria" features African-flavored guitar, "Thanksgiving" highly-effected electric guitar (ala Robert Fripp), while public-domain hymn "Just As I Am" (arranged by Sturm) adds a haunting almost screaming saxophone solo and string swells, and "Sanctus" breaks suddenly into a jazz piano solo. Led by wife Misty Ann Sturm's lovely vocals and her husband on bass, the septet features Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Adam Benjamin on acoustic and electric pianos, Ted Poor on drums and Loren Stillman on alto sax. The compositions are deceptively clean and simple, allowing the melodies to maintain their central focus within the framework. A work of depth expressing love, peace and spirituality - a rarity (unfortunately) in this or any time.
Dan Moretti - "Tres Muse"
With an all-"Martys" rhythm section : Marty Ballou on electric bass and Marty Richards on drums, Berklee professor and saxophonist Dan Moretti was recently reviewed on this site for the fine Foundations recording he co-led with Curt Ramm and Bill Cunliffe (see our review here). He has now released a pianoless trio album entitled "Tres Muse." Strictly sticking to tenor sax here, Moretti starts things off with a funky New Orleans flavor on the first four numbers. He couldn't have chosen a better bass and drum tandem, with the two former Duke Robillard band members locked-in tight. Moretti has a smooth and satisfying sound, while Ballou's masterful chords and solos on the electric bass are also featured prominently throughout, especially on the ballad "The Whisper," "Invoke" and the Carribean-flavored "Guacamaya." Interesting and original in approach, this recording is a treat for people looking for something different..
Jon Gordon - "Evolution"
Alto saxophonist Jon Gordon has received considerable praise form people who should know - like Wayne Shorter and Phil Woods. A recent stint with trombonist Alan Ferber's nonet gave Gordon the idea to record with strings and a tentet, and he recruited Ferber himself to do the orchestrations. The outcome is Evolution, a mature series of compositions rife with layers, and tendrils of lyrical ideas to discover on repeated listening experiences, all played beautifully by the musicians involved. Gordon is a veteran of the NYC scene, whose alto command and smooth tone are impeccable. Standout guitarist Nate Radley's work as always enhances the sound, bass clarinetist Doug Yates solos nicely on "Individuation" while vocalist Kristin Berardi's wordless vocals sparkle on several tracks. The tentet arrangements provide an expressive palette of tonal colors, while the works for strings (like "Contemplation") are reminiscent of Schoenberg's early "Verklarte Nacht." Between the group numbers - which contract and expand in size and configuration, Gordon and longtime associate pianist Bill Charlap perform two duets for Gordon's sons, and these pieces are knockouts as well, showing the respectful interplay of these two artists up close. The overall vision of Evolution is striking in its balance of intelligence and emotion and perhaps prints a blueprint for how the future evolution of jazz may sound.
Gene Segal - "Hypnotic"
Russian-born guitarist Gene Segal now resides in Brooklyn and has studied with Vic Juris and John Abercrombie, amomng others. This guitar/organ/drums trio recording (Hypnotic) is his debut and stars Segal, drummer Matt Kane and former Chicago keyboardist/fashion plate/dancer Sam Barsh. A horn section featuring saxophonist Bryan Beninghove, tenor saxophonist Mike Sim and trumpeter Jonathan Powell appears on two tracks as well (the title track and the soulful African-influenced number "Alef" - perhaps the highlight of the recording). Segal blends funk, rock and blues influences in with his jazz approach, while Barsh is the Energizer bunny - supplying endless kinetic energy and surprising directions and sounds on up-tempo tunes like "Red Eyes." The band proves they can slow it down as well, as on "Free Falls" and the aptly-named "Quiet" - where Segal's impressive technique is countered by Barsh's restrained organ work and sensitive drumming by Kane. The band throughout is very tight. Things kind of slip into a bit of a lull on the second half, after the horns depart for good, but "Blues Again" and "Truth" pick the pace to end things. A solid debut recording from a talented and promising young guitarist and composer.